Start Time: 7:32 pm
End Time: 9:45 pm (Closed Session Subsequent to Meeting, end time - 11:14 pm)
One of my good friends from college sent me a text message prior to the Orioles playoff game against the Rangers. He is a long time Phillies fan and serious baseball devotee. It said "Playoff baseball ages you considerably." I have thought of that text many times over the past week. Many tim...zzzzzzzz.
Last night the Board tried something new. We had a number of important topics relating to Symphony Woods that needed to be addressed, with the additional component of needing to be addressed in a timely manner. Phil Nelson suggested the Board suspend the committee structure to use Board time as a work session to address those issues and lend policy guidance to Staff. I would say that for the most part, this approach was successful, but possibly not executed in the most efficient manner. We reached the decisions necessary to move forward, but waded through a lot of "junk" to get there.
Two quick items that were addressed in the beginning of the meeting:
1) The Board approved the request to allow the Watershed Management Division to reallocate funds within a fiscal year from one watershed project to another.
2) The Board reviewed new forms for submission of Capital Projects for consideration in the FY 2104 budget. These forms simplify the process tremendously and should allow for greater accessibility by the Villages.
The premise of this discussion is that the Downtown Development Plan requires that in some point in the future, Howard Hughes and the County will create a Downtown Arts District Trust that will manage Merriweather Post Pavillion and the planned development that will take place "in the donut hole." All appearances are that the transfer of land and funds creating this Trust will be occurring sooner than once projected, with the additional question to the Columbia Association as to whether we want to be part of that Trust to allow for coherent and coordinated development across the Merriweather Post/Symphony Woods Neighborhood. Do we join the Trust or do we sit out and await the creation of our new, very powerful, neighbor?
I am strongly in favor of joining the Trust (also referred to, somewhat confusingly, as "the Partnership"). As described last night by another Board member, this is the opportunity to take on an unprecedented partnership that could set the standard for all future development in Downtown Columbia with regard to joint property owners. Even better, it allows for all parties to take on projects that may otherwise be bigger than what they could do individually. I quoted Senator Kittleman's quip from the 2010 election that "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu" and I think that is certainly true here. Property development is competitive and often adversarial. There is only so much dirt to go around. Joining forces with the two most powerful and influential elements in Downtown allows CA more strength and negotiating power, rather than less. In its most simplest terms, this is a complete no-brainer.
Nevertheless, the most fruitful agreement between parties still requires legal parameters that will protect all of those involved. If those preliminary parameters cannot be set in a way that is acceptable to all parties, the Trust should not exist. While open to the idea of exploring this opportunity, the Board was rightfully skeptical of the manner in which this Trust would bind CA. Would it compel future financial obligations? Could we be overridden on matters relating to our land? Could the obligations of our partners be transferred to CA via the Trust?
As an attorney, I see these questions as a springing off point, while others on the Board saw them as flat objections. Unfortunately, at many points during the meeting, I felt like Board members were talking past one another, wherein a Board member who had suggested they were "for" exploring the Trust, would contemporaneously say everything that made them nervous as if it were a reason to back out entirely.
The CA Board does not have a reputation for playing well with others. I don't think this is because of any malicious intentions, but rather a general inexperience in partnering with unfamiliar third parties. I found it unfortunate that a few Board members saw fit to question the motives of our prospective partners, as if this alone were reason alone to take our ball and go home. When the necessary legal protections are in place, motives are irrelevant. If you don't trust your lawyers to implement those protections, you have no business partnering with anyone (and should get a new lawyer).
The derivative decision, which was just as important, was whether CA continue with our current path and Plan or whether we hold off on that Plan pending creation of the Trust. The Board chose the latter. We finally were able to discuss The McCall Plan, although the particulars were not disclosed in open meeting (I hope we remedy this soon). This is a Plan that has been promoted by numerous County officials and private parties throughout Columbia. It is a great Plan. I would love for it to be our Plan. But we have danced around the issue for so long that I fear we will only create confusion when that decision is before us.
The Plan submitted to the Planning Board just is not enough. As much as I may have wanted to see something get approved before, the current Plan does not present the framework for a world-class park. It is enough to get by. The McCall Plan provides the platform for a world-class park and I look forward to the opportunity to share it with you.
The last important "straw vote" related to whether we would explore opportunities for building a CA Headquarters/Facility in Symphony Woods. I am hesitant to discuss this in any great detail due to the sensitivity of real estate discussions, but I can say that the Board confirmed Staff's ability to explore this opportunity.
These decisions were placed in the context of nine questions that ranged from the general (Do we want to explore negotiations for entering the Trust?) to the specific (Do we want to allow third parties to use CA land for the storage of construction materials?). It gave me the impression that the Board's sometimes unrelenting battery of Staff has made them gun-shy on presenting recommendations for important decisions.
I understand the proposed methodology. "Answer me these questions three and I will allow ye pass." Almost like a personality test - If you answered yes to 1-9, then you must like tri-partied Trusts and new visions for Symphony Woods. If you answered no to any of these questions, you are an isolationist who would rather go it alone. The problem with this approach is that it really undermines whatever deliberative function the Board may otherwise provide and muddies the water of future decisions. Thankfully, Staff quickly narrowed the questions before the Board from the original nine to the three issues noted above. We were much better for it and our deliberations could be structured accordingly.
For fear of being misinterpreted, I don't blame the Staff for the confusion. I have to believe that other Board members either explicitly or implicitly recommending this meandering approach (pun intended on further reflection). It is a continuation of our persistent fear of making a decision of consequence. If we "show our work", then there can be no reproach. That's not how the real world works. Decisions of magnitude are delegated to those willing to take them on. We can either pass or move forward. I would like to think we did a lot of "moving forward" last night.
That's all for today. Have a great Friday doing what you love! I am embarrassed to say that I failed to use this medium to promote my favorite event of the year, which takes place tonight at the Robinson Nature Center - A Vintage Affair. Not to high hat, but I go to a LOT of community events and benefits. This one is always my favorite with all of my favorite people. If you would still like to attend and have not bought tickets, you can buy them through the website or e-mail me and I will make arrangements for you. Hopefully I will see most of you tonight!