Friday, October 30, 2020

And, the Ground Continues to Shift

 As a child, I spent holidays and vacation time in the New England area, visiting Cape Cod and the Islands of Nantucket. During my youth, Nantucket Island had little development and the beaches were amazingly pristine. I spent summers collecting seashells, reading about whaling, and participating in Maria Mitchell Association science research. Later, I was married at Brant Point Light House, barefoot and happy. But, as with Columbia, the ground had started shifting on the Island. Tourists had discovered the treasure that is Nantucket, and with them came residential and commercial development. Town leaders engaged the voters of Nantucket to establish the first of its kind in the nation, Nantucket Islands Land Bank, to acquire land for the benefit of the public in perpetuity. The Land Bank legislation created an quasigovernmental program designed to hold and manage important open spaces for conservation and recreational purposes in perpetuity.  Other Land Banks have been inspired by the Nantucket Islands Land Bank, including the Cape Cod Land Bank and the Block Island Land Trust.  But this was only the beginning of the story, Nantucket cultivated a team effort to protect, educate, and preserve its fragile ecosystem. Additional conservancy groups were established in a collaborative effort to protect the wildlife habitats, educate their youth, and raise public awareness.   

The time has come for Columbia Association (CA) to become the visionaries that Jim Rouse modeled during the 1960s when he proposed a "balanced, planned community" that would "fit naturally into the Howard County landscape, preserving the stream valleys, protecting hills and forests, and providing parks and greenbelts." CA has established a Climate Change & Sustainability Committee and Watershed Advisory Committee to advise the Board of Directors and staff on approximately 3,600 acres of open space, numerous ponds, golf courses, and lakes. Columbia is fortunate in that it has attracted passionate environmentalists who have contributed their time and talents to these committees.

And, then there is today, COVID-19 has caused financial stress for CA and the possible elimination of New Town zoning  is being discussed by the Howard County Department of Planning & Zoning and consultants during the HoCo by Design (master plan) effort. (New Town Zoning is the Howard County legislation that required CA maintain a certain amount of open space.) The Nature Conservancy says, "How we choose to live with nature will determine our future." I would like to offer the following, "Protecting and conserving the land, streams, and lakes through changing the legal structures that preserve these natural resources in perpetuity is essential." Revisions to the legal structure of CA's open space/land ownership (only) is essential to the future of open space and could enable CA to apply for federal, state, and private grant money. Nantucket is the guide, but other models are also available; Nature Conservancy, Sate of Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and private land trusts. The Community must find its voice. Whether COVID-19 is truly an inflection point for CA corporate governance is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt that the pandemic has challenged the core premises of our model of governance, and the Board of Directors should take an active role in ensuring that there is a more sustainable vision for ensuring the future of our natural resources.  


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

the Named Storm is COVID-19

COVID -19 has taken Columbia Association (CA) by storm, impacting our Sports and Fitness Division, today and into the future. For months to come, the Board of Directors will be Looking at this situation as part of a larger conversation about how our mission and vision must evolve over time. While we will consider different business models for many of our facilities and prepare for future disruptions in the microeconomic landscape that is Columbia, the Board should commit itself to increasing fairness throughout the community, and intentionally creating environments where everyone feels welcome, respected, and encouraged to participate. The Board should not use a "cut and burn" strategy but rather a scalpel or look for opportunities to repurpose or reimagine amenities. Although I wish circumstances were different, now is the time for each Board member to reflect on how our "business" model can evolve to create a culture of inclusion and opportunity for each of our neighbors. The Board should use this time wisely, amid the confusion, to slow down and adapt to the changing conditions and demographics of the community.  The Board should be looking to the two largest segments of the community, Boomers and Millennials, to answer important questions about how to meet the interests of younger residents and the evolving interests of those approaching retirement. Both groups are active and want to stay connected to family and neighbors, including having access to open space, swimming, and playgrounds. And, these are the very activities that have been among the highest-ranked activities in CA surveys since 1998. 

These can be both stressful and exciting times for the community as questions arise such as; how to broaden the community's appeal, what exciting opportunities will arise, and how will CA finance the conversion of existing assets to enhance community value. The Board of Directors has before it an onerous task. The Board should work diligently to create an open dialogue with the Village Boards, Advisory Committees, and residents. Every meeting should be open to the public or live streamed and participation should be encouraged. The discussion, amendment, or approval of any budget should not happen in a closed session as it did on June 4, 2020 to pass the FY 2021 Amended Budget. Not only does this violate State of Maryland HOA laws, it is unprofessional and unethical. I am encouraging you to participate and make your voices heard. CA Board Meetings and Work Sessions are live streamed on the YouTube CA Live Stream page on the Association website. But most importantly, Speak Out at a Work Session or Board Meeting. Tell the Board what you value. To sign up for Speak Out visit: 

Further, residents can email me at or call me at 443-686-0702.       

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Let's Do the Math


All figures referenced in this blog are either in the Board of Directors' Work Session/Meeting Packets or the CA Financial Report for the quarter ended on July 31, 2020. This information is available to the public on the CA website.

During FY 2020 (year ended April 30, 2020), the Columbia Association's (CA) Sports and Fitness Division recognized a loss of $9.6 million and is budgeted to lose $12.5 million in FY 2021. If the average residential property assessment in Columbia during FY 2020 was $1,070, approximately 23.6% of this amount, or $252.52 was used to subsidize the Sports and Fitness Division. Further, it can be projected that that during FY 2021, homeowners will pay a subsidy of $334 of the average annual assessment towards the Sports and Fitness Division. 

So, who does the subsidy benefit? The membership of the Sports and Fitness Division totaled 13,931 (excluding frozen memberships) as of July 31, 2020 (4,937 were non-resident members and 8,994 were CA residents)  representing a fall in memberships of approximately 32% during the first quarter. Therefore, CA assessments are covering losses for each member (resident and non-resident), at a rate of $896 annually. This should be concerning to each of us, as many of our neighbors cannot afford to participate in the CA programs because of the cost structure of the memberships, including the additional fee to access the outdoor pools. 

Compounding this concern, is the fact that the FY 2021 budget includes the closure of all outdoor pools at a cost to CA of $1.4 million, including $711,000 in total personnel expenses ($533, 000 in salaries and wages, $130,000 in employee benefits, and payroll taxes of $48,000). If this figure appears high, it is because all of the Aquatic's Cost Center overhead staff has been allocated to the outdoor pools, and has not been distributed among the indoor pools. Also included in the Aquatic's Cost Center budget are Allocated Corporate Costs of $140,000 for which little value is received. In summary, Senior Management needs to account for costs of $851,000 for outdoor pools that will have been closed for eighteen months by Memorial Day, 2021. CA Board Members should continue to investigate and better understand the cost structure of the Aquatics Cost Center's budget. Further, each department within CA  deserves the same scrutiny. The brunt of the current operating structure and its related losses should not be taken on by the residents of Columbia. 

Outdoor pools have ranked highest on resident surveys for over twenty years. Also indicated on the surveys is the fact that most residents consider the cost of membership "too expensive."  The CA Board members should reassess the FY 2021 budget as the current operating structure of the Sports and Fitness Division is not sustainable for the residents long term and does not represent the priorities of residents. CA should plan to open the outdoor pools to all residents for the summer of 2021.

Remember, outdoor pools are not only a cost center, they are also a community benefit, and the closest thing we have to community centers for our youth during the summer. CA does not have Boys and Girls Clubs or Rec Centers for children to gather with their friends, but we do have the outdoor pools which for far too long have been economically out of reach to many of the families that live in our villages. If Columbia is truly to be "a garden for the growing of people" it should begin with our families, neighbors, and friends.  Each families' socioeconomic status should not limit their access to the outdoor pools, learning to swim, and CNSL (the summer swim league).  CA should be willing to form strategic partnerships with the USA Swimming Foundation and the Horizon Foundation. CA does not have to "go it alone." CA should be driven by a mission of inclusivity, fueled by organizational discipline, and sustained by our spirit of community. 

If you would like to discuss this and other issues involving CA, I invite residents to participate in a virtual town hall to discuss possible solutions to these concerns :

Topic: Virtual Town Hall 

Time: Oct 21, 2020 07:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 890 6080 3943

Passcode: 633431

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