Monday, March 31, 2008

Opening Day!


And a big finish!
Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 28, 2008

$170 For Your Troubles

If you found $170 on the ground, would you pick it up? Does it make up for the rapid rise in your electricity bill?

From WaPo:

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Constellation Energy Corp. hailed their agreement yesterday to give 1.1 million Maryland electricity customers a one-time $170 credit as a victory that will cool the disputes and turmoil of recent months.

"I believe some of the contentious issues of the past are behind us," the governor said at a news conference while flanked by state utility regulators and Democratic legislative leaders. They contrasted O'Malley's effort to wrest concessions from the region's biggest power company with what they contend was the industry-friendly administration of his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

"We all win in various ways," said Public Service Commission Chairman Steven B. Larsen, who scoured Maryland's 1999 electric deregulation deal for more than a year to find potential givebacks for Baltimore Gas and Electric customers. One included in the proposed Constellation settlement: A $1.5 billion cost that customers were scheduled to pay to dismantle the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant will now be all but wiped out.

Constellation chief executive Mayo A. Shattuck III said in a statement last night, "All parties gain meaningfully in this carefully crafted settlement, and the overarching value is a return to regulatory stability and normalcy."

If the General Assembly approves the settlement, customers of BGE, a Constellation subsidiary, should expect to find the credit on their bills by the end of the year, officials said yesterday. In the Washington region, BGE serves parts of Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and Southern Maryland.

Whatever the benefits for electric customers in the short term, the deal doesn't change the skyrocketing rates that resulted when Maryland opened its electricity markets to competition. Electric bills rose when rate caps came off for Pepco customers in 2004 and BGE in 2006. The expected competition never arrived. Fuel prices are climbing, and unregulated power companies, including Constellation and Mirant, are free to charge what the market will bear to supply Maryland's growing electricity needs.

"What customers are losing every year dwarfs the credits," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's), the General Assembly's chief critic of deregulation. "On the surface, it's cents on the dollar. If we're trading in regulatory reform for this, we're giving in."

BGE customer Liz Barrett of Annapolis, a choir director and activist, called the $170 credit "ridiculous."

"It's less than the increase on my bill for this month," she said, noting that it has doubled since 2006 and totals $425 to heat her four-bedroom house. "The thing that kills me is we're facing these horrendous bills and we're not having much of a winter."

The deal was struck by attorneys for Constellation and the O'Malley administration after two weeks of negotiations to resolve a lawsuit the company filed in federal court this month. Constellation sued to recover $2.83 in monthly credits it is giving electricity customers over 10 years. The state filed a countersuit to continue the credits.

A public relations war over rising rates, simmering since O'Malley's 2006 campaign, boiled over. The governor took aim at Constellation's wealthy stockholders; the company was furious at a report Larsen made to lawmakers in January that assailed the deregulation deal as bad for consumers.

For Constellation, the settlement restores political peace in a dispute that industry analysts at J.P. Morgan described yesterday as a "high stakes political issue." The company gains more leeway to sell stock to investors without approval from regulators. And it has withdrawn its threat to pursue financing for a new nuclear plant in New York instead of building a proposed third reactor at Calvert Cliffs.

"Maryland was getting a lot of negative national attention as a result of these disagreements," said Glen Thomas of the P3 Group, a consortium of power companies in the mid-Atlantic.

Under the agreement, the company will assume the costs to decommission the two existing Calvert Cliffs reactors starting in 2034, perhaps the biggest long-term gain for electricity customers. BGE transferred the nuclear facility and its other power plants to Constellation in 2000, but customers, not shareholders, were on the hook to dismantle it. Customers have paid $920 million to a decommissioning fund through their bills. But the PSC disputed the future cost in recent months, contending that customers would pay in excess of $1.5 billion if they kept contributing through 2034, a windfall for Constellation.

O'Malley and lawmakers said yesterday that the agreement does not preclude any attempts by the legislature to adopt reregulation of the power industry.

"Issues regarding reregulation are still very much on the plate," Larsen said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said O'Malley "made out very well politically" by announcing a deal for customers. But he said the "financial benefits aren't going to be enough to stop high utility costs."

Sean Dobson of Progressive Maryland, an advocacy group, said O'Malley is "playing a bad hand as best as he can."

"Given the fact that the 1999 law was a total and absolute giveaway to the power companies, it's the best he could negotiate."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Local Science

Time for a little science lesson...this from the folks at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab:

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has discovered evidence that points to the existence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Saturn's moon Titan. The findings made using radar measurements of Titan's rotation will appear in the March 21 issue of the journal Science.

"With its organic dunes, lakes, channels and mountains, Titan has one of the most varied, active and Earth-like surfaces in the solar system," said Ralph Lorenz, lead author of the paper and Cassini radar scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. "Now we see changes in the way Titan rotates, giving us a window into Titan's interior beneath the surface."

Members of the mission's science team used Cassini's Synthetic Aperture Radar to collect imaging data during 19 separate passes over Titan between October 2005 and May 2007. The radar can see through Titan's dense, methane-rich atmospheric haze, detailing never-before-seen surface features and establishing their locations on the moon's surface.

Using data from the radar's early observations, the scientists and radar engineers established the locations of 50 unique landmarks on Titan's surface. They then searched for these same lakes, canyons and mountains in the reams of data returned by Cassini in its later flybys of Titan. They found prominent surface features had shifted from their expected positions by up to 19 miles. A systematic displacement of surface features would be difficult to explain unless the moon's icy crust was decoupled from its core by an internal ocean, making it easier for the crust to move.

"We believe that about 62 miles beneath the ice and organic-rich surface is an internal ocean of liquid water mixed with ammonia," said Bryan Stiles of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in, Pasadena, Calif. Stiles also is a contributing author to the paper.

The study of Titan is a major goal of the Cassini-Huygens mission because it may preserve, in deep-freeze, many of the chemical compounds that preceded life on Earth. Titan is the only moon in the solar system that possesses a dense atmosphere. The moon's atmosphere is 1.5 times denser than Earth's. Titan is the largest of Saturn's moons, bigger than the planet Mercury.

"The combination of an organic-rich environment and liquid water is very appealing to astrobiologists," said APL's Lorenz. "Further study of Titan's rotation will let us understand the watery interior better, and because the spin of the crust and the winds in the atmosphere are linked, we might see seasonal variation in the spin in the next few years."

Cassini scientists will not have long to wait before another go at Titan. On March 25, just prior to its closest approach at an altitude of 620 miles, Cassini will employ its Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer to examine Titan's upper atmosphere. Immediately after closest approach, the spacecraft's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer will capture high-resolution images of Titan's southeast quadrant.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Cassini orbiter also was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

For information about Cassini visit:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is David's An Anchor?

The Sun says the natural food emporium is interested, and its had a successful run in Wilde Lake. HoCo Exec Ken Ulman discusses vague plans to create new zoning laws to help village centers and urges folks to give him a jingle. Hometown Columbia says in her blog a new paradigm is needed.

There's obviously a lot of shopping energy in Columbia, just not in the village centers. Instead of forcing something that is not to be what else could that property be used for? Are grocery stores and nondescript office buildings the only option? In other words, is anything better than nothing, or does there need to be a whole plan and community buy-in for how stuff is to be sustained?

This is a little simplistic but...Back in the day we lived in Alexandria about the time the community decided to turn an old abandoned torpedo factory into an art center. Downtown Alexandria was pretty gritty in those days, not exactly a safe place at night. But after much discussion, endless discussion, among many different parties, the center opened, which in turn gave a shot in the arm to nearby restaurants, which inspired new galleries, which fed further waterfront development, and suddenly you had a boom.

So, and we are just musing here, not making a suggestion...what if CA, the county and a developer team up to build a first class, Olympic quality swim, tennis and track complex with shops to complement? Or the ice rink was dramatically expanded, and indoor soccer and basketball courts added. Would that be something families would rally around, and keep coming to?

We recall a comment by Barbara Russell, musing about why more people come out to CA meetings talk about a proposal to eliminate towels at the athletic club than engage in more substantive discussions. Maybe they want more towels.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Police Chase Ends In Crash

From the Sun:

A speeding car weaving between lanes on southbound U.S. 29 crossed the median south of Columbia and collided with a northbound car yesterday, sending both drivers to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Howard County police said an officer in an unmarked police car saw a 1993 Toyota Paseo speeding and weaving between lanes on U.S. 29 at 2:40 p.m. The officer tried to stop the vehicle, but the driver sped up, police said.

As the Paseo's driver approached Rivers Edge Road, south of Route 32, the vehicle suddenly changed lanes, skidding across the grassy median and into the northbound lanes, where it was struck by a 2000 Toyota Camry driven by Joshua Jacobs, 39, of the 6100 block of Rusk Ave. in Baltimore.

Both drivers were taken by helicopter to Shock Trauma. Jacobs was listed in stable condition. The Paseo's driver was in critical condition and was not identified by police.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fireworks Costs Skyrocket

Another sign of the times: The cost of shooting off Columbia's fireworks could go up 32 percent because county officials are pessimistic that anyone would want to volunteer their time to help put on the show.

Here's what the Sun said:

County officials have said they will look for sponsors to make sure that the tradition of Fourth of July fireworks at the Columbia lakefront continues after the Kiwanis Club announced that it will no longer finance the event.

"We haven't gone too far in how it's going to be financed," Kevin Enright, a spokesman for County Executive Ken Ulman, said last week. " ... We'll make sure the tradition continues."

The Kiwanis Club spent $38,000 on the event last year with an all-volunteer staff, Enright said. He estimated that the cost would be about $50,000 this year, because the cost goes up each year and the county would not have the same full volunteer staff.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Who'll Launch The Fireworks?

From WaPo:

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008; HO03

The Kiwanis Club of Columbia said this week that it's unable to sponsor the Independence Day Festival at Lake Kittamaqundi. But Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) promised the county's help and said "the show will go on."

The July 4 festival and fireworks display has drawn up to 20,000 people to the lakefront for nearly 20 years, but the Columbia service organization no longer has the manpower to stage the event, said Henry Stern, chairman of public relations for the group. The Kiwanis Club has 15 members, he said, and several are in poor health.

The club is responsible for organizing the event, arranging for vendors, hiring security and funding the $20,000 fireworks display. "There's just so much involved in this," Stern said. "Since we're down to these few members, we just can't do it anymore."

Stern said the Kiwanis Club contacted the Columbia Association staff and the county Department of Recreation and Parks in recent weeks to help find an organization to sponsor the event with assistance from the Kiwanis.

"We didn't want to abandon it completely if it was at all possible," Stern said.

Steven Sattler, the association's director of communications and marketing, said: "It's obviously unfortunate for the community, but CA can't tackle this on its own. If somebody can step forward, we'll do whatever we've done in the past."

Howard government spokesman Kevin Enright said Ulman, learning of the matter while he was out of town, said the county would look for sponsors.

"It will happen," Enright said.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Driving Rules

The Maryland legislature is moving forward on plans to allow cameras to enforce speeding limits. Support is also growing to require drivers to use hands-free kits when using cell phones, according to WaPo.

The speed camera bill that passed the Maryland Senate 26 to 21 would allow the state to install speed cameras in construction areas. It would also authorize local governments to use speed cameras in school zones and in residential neighborhoods with posted speed limits under 45 mph.

Maryland would join the District in allowing speed cameras and banning hand-held cellphones. Virginia does not allow speed cameras and has no cellphone prohibition.

Final action in Md. still awaits. The cell phone restrictions would only be enforced as secondary offenses, meaning the police would have to stop you for something else first. Infractions caught on cameras would bring fines but not points on your license, similar to the way the system works for red-light runners.

Montgomery has been using cameras to catch speeders as part of a pilot. A colleague of mine says he has gotten a ticket for going just four miles over the posted speed limit. Another says it has become almost comical in MoCo how drivers speed, brake sharply near the cameras, and then hit the gas again when they are free from their probing eyes.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

TalkTV: Is Spring Around The Corner?

We saw this on YouTube and it reminded us of spring....Here's the description that went along with it:

Bird species counted 2/17/08 as part of the 2008 Great Backyard Bird Count, Columbia Md. 16 species 78 birds not all species sighted are pictured.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mom And Pops: Hope Or Hopeless?

The Examiner quoted the county's top economic development chief on the plight of mom and pop establishments:

Dick Story, head of the county’s Economic Development Authority, said he wasn’t sure what a program to support mom-and-pop stores would look like.

“The dynamics of competition have changed, [and] it’s incumbent upon local businesses to engage the rules of competition as they have changed,” Story said.

Del. Liz Bobo offered an idea:

To protect these stores, Bobo suggested, at least in Produce Galore’s case: What if nonprofits and area businesses were encouraged to have standing orders with the store to offer some stability?

She said state and local governments could be involved in finding ways to save the stores.

“I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say [Produce Galore] was part of the heart and soul of the community,” she said.

Management of the Wilde Lake shopping center, Kimco Realty, is scheduled to meet with the village board on Monday, according to the Sun.

"Increased competition from the new retailers, and now the big-box retailers, is drawing the lifeblood out of the village centers," said Bill Miller, owner of Today's Catch, the fish market in the center since 1977. "The village centers are the heart of the Columbia concept. So, if the village centers decline, then Columbia itself and Howard County are going to suffer the consequences. But, I don't think that's going to happen."

Miller said he considers his store, along with Produce Galore, David's and Feet First as independent anchors in their own right.

"The mixed-use residential with a heavy component of ownership-based residential, is something we should look at," he said. "What we need is a forward-looking solution to revitalizing the village centers in Columbia."

Jeff Cohen, owner of Feet First which has been in the center since 1985, said each retailer that leaves is a loss for the ones remaining.

"It does chip away," he said. "We've been lucky in the sense that for running customers, we're a destination. I can't complain. We are doing fairly well. We have a loyal customer base."

At David's Natural Market, General Manager Greg Resch said it was unclear what impact Produce Galore's closing would have.

"I get people asking us if we're closing, too," he said. "We don't have any issues here. Our only concern is the emptiness. But the niche that we built -- there's no reason for us to lose that."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Produce Galore's Last Day

From WaPo:

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008; D01

Kent Pendleton opened Produce Galore in 1976 with $1,000 won on a lottery ticket and turned the small gourmet grocery store into a fixture of the progressive town of Columbia. Customers raved about the homemade West African peanut soup, shared their family recipes and found good conversation alongside the plantains.

Thirty-two years later, Pendleton's luck has finally run out. Produce Galore shut its doors yesterday, caught in the crosshairs of the region's brutal supermarket wars.

"I can't believe it. I'm so upset. Everybody is," said Starr Sowers, who lives in Columbia and has been a customer for 30 years. She leaned in to give Pendleton and his wife and business partner, Margaret, a hug. "We are going to miss you so much," she told them.

Dozens of other longtime customers dropped in last week to say goodbye. The Pendletons told them they were too tired to keep fighting . Sales have fallen off in recent years as the neighborhood that developer James Rouse envisioned as a racially and economically mixed suburban utopia became like other suburban areas, complete with McMansions.

Now, the growth that has turned Howard County into one of the wealthiest counties in the country has caught the eye of national retailers. The first Costco in the county opened in October. The first Trader Joe's opened in the same shopping center a month later. The first Harris Teeter is slated to open this year, and Wegmans has won approval for a store in Howard. Produce Galore simply found itself in the way.

"Finally, you have to say, 'Okay, we have to do this,' " Pendleton said, referring to closing. He was sitting at a small table in the middle of store, amid depleted shelves that would never be restocked. "You do what you've been putting off for such a long time."

The story is a familiar one for small grocers, which the industry defines as those with 10 stores or less. Their share of the market has been eroding for years, according to trade publication Progressive Grocer. As of December 2007, there were 34,967 supermarkets in the country. Small independents accounted for 18 percent of that number, with 6,330 stores. With sales of $32.2 billion, their market share was less than 6 percent.

"It's a challenging world for the little guy," said Jeffrey Metzger, publisher of local trade magazine Food World. "He can exist, but he better come armed."

Pendleton grew up near Olney and was working at a produce market in Northeast Washington in the 1970s when he decided to strike out on his own. With the help of his brother, Jay, and the lucky lottery ticket, he built Produce Galore in a shopping center not far from his home.

The store opened on July 3, 1976, and quickly carved out a niche selling such exotic produce as bok choy at a time when competitors stocked only iceberg lettuce and cabbage. Pendleton carried basil, cilantro, watercress, ginger, fresh mushrooms and horseradish. The worldly professionals that populated Columbia literally ate it up.

"We thought, well, we had a chance here," Pendleton said.

In the 1980s, Produce Galore added stores in Laurel and Columbia. But Pendleton never harbored grand ambitions, and the business became too large to manage. He closed the second store in Columbia and sold the Laurel location to one of his employees so he could focus on the original site. That store hit its peak in about 2000, bringing in about $3.5 million.

Pendleton, a laconic fellow with a strong jaw, met Margaret, who grew up in Prince George's County, when she started working as a cashier at the store in the late 1970s. With her ready laugh and big eyes, she persuaded him to install the store's popular salad and hot bars, and is the chef who created the 400 varieties of soup offered over the years. The most popular by far is the West African peanut, a reflection of Columbia's diverse population, Margaret said.

She also pushed the business into catering, and the couple has done everything from baby showers to graduations and weddings -- sometimes, all for the same family. Their customers have been there for them as well. Eighteen years ago, Margaret's daughter was injured in a car accident and has been in a coma ever since. Her customers helped her realize that she had the strength to go on, she said.

The Pendletons have become such local institutions that they could barely tell their story on a recent afternoon as a steady stream of loyal customers stopped by to offer good wishes.

"We put everything we have into this business, and here we are," Margaret said. "Ready to retire, and we can't."

Produce Galore had a symbiotic relationship for many years with its Goliath competitors. Giant Food operated in the same shopping center, and the store fed off the heavy foot traffic. But two years ago, the Giant shut down, and its space remains vacant. The Pendletons watched traffic in the shopping center drop off and saw the empty parking spaces outside their store. They knew the end was near.

Produce Galore was losing its niche. Basil and cilantro are now supermarket staples, and upscale retailers such as Whole Foods and Wegmans satiate consumers' desires for even more exotic products at affordable prices. Shopping habits also have changed. Fewer customers seemed interested in stopping at multiple stores for their groceries, and Produce Galore was near the bottom of the list.

The Pendletons briefly considered trying to sell their business. But with such dominant national retailers marching across the county, no one was interested in taking such a risk. The only option, they decided, was to shut down.

"It's hard to fight the forces that we're up against now," Margaret said.

They broke the news to their staff -- which includes a family of four -- during a morning meeting at the store on Tuesday. They sent an e-mail to customers that same day explaining what had happened.

"Although we have been in denial for a while, it is time for us to face the facts," the e-mail said. "The current economic conditions are not going to change any time soon. In fact they are going to get worse before they get better."

The Pendletons put everything in the store on sale: from rounds of brie to chocolate truffles and loaves of walnut rye bread. By Wednesday, entire shelves had been emptied. The produce -- pink lady apples and sweet potatoes and D'Anjou pears -- was almost gone.

The couple is not sure what they will do today, having locked the doors for the last time. They still have about year and a half left on their lease with Kimco Realty, which operates the shopping center. They are used to working seven days a week. In the two decades that they've been married, they have never taken more than three days vacation together.

Maybe they'll try to keep their catering business going. Maybe they'll have to go out and look for jobs. For now, they're just trying to say goodbye.

"I'm getting a hug, too," said Heather Damore of Columbia, stopping by the table. "I'm just waiting for a millionaire to read your letter and say, 'I'm going to save you.' "

Damore paused, and then she had a better idea: "I'm going to buy a lottery ticket."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bumper Sticker Stoopididdy

Spotted on a burgundy-colored Toyota:

"Choose Stupidity in Howard County"

That almost caused us to lose our civility!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Measuring Howard's Carbon Footprint

HoCo Exec Ken Ulman recently signed into law creation of a local Environmental Sustainability Office. One of the first tasks of the operation, according to this release, is to develop a county-wide "Greenhouse Gas Emissions inventory."

The County will measure emissions from five sectors: electricity and natural gas, vehicular transportation, agriculture, solid waste, and waste water treatment. Once the baseline inventory is completed, the County will complete a Climate Action Plan—a community wide strategy for reducing our emissions to the levels set forth in the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement signed by Executive Ulman in 2007.

“The challenge is to understand what our carbon footprint is now so we can prioritize where we need to focus first to drive the number down,” said Joshua Feldmark, the County’s Environmental Director.

The Examiner said in this story the county has budgeted $100,000 to hire a consultant to help.

The announcement reminded us of a recent New Yorker piece about the difficulties in making such an assessment. The piece focused in part on the British supermarket chain Tesco and its desire to not only cut its own energy use but develop a system of carbon labels for each of its 70,000 products to empower consumers. Here's an excerpt:

A person’s carbon footprint is simply a measure of his contribution to global warming. (CO2 is the best known of the gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, but others—including water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide—also play a role.) Virtually every human activity—from watching television to buying a quart of milk—has some carbon cost associated with it. We all consume electricity generated by burning fossil fuels; most people rely on petroleum for transportation and heat. Emissions from those activities are not hard to quantify. Watching a plasma television for three hours every day contributes two hundred and fifty kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere each year; an LCD television is responsible for less than half that number. Yet the calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex. To sum them up on a label will not be easy. Should the carbon label on a jar of peanut butter include the emissions caused by the fertilizer, calcium, and potassium applied to the original crop of peanuts? What about the energy used to boil the peanuts once they have been harvested, or to mold the jar and print the labels? Seen this way, carbon costs multiply rapidly. A few months ago, scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute reported that the carbon footprint of Christmas—including food, travel, lighting, and gifts—was six hundred and fifty kilograms per person. That is as much, they estimated, as the weight of “one thousand Christmas puddings” for every resident of England.

As a source of global warming, the food we eat—and how we eat it—is no more significant than the way we make clothes or travel or heat our homes and offices. It certainly doesn’t compare to the impact made by tens of thousands of factories scattered throughout the world. Yet food carries enormous symbolic power, so the concept of “food miles”—the distance a product travels from the farm to your home—is often used as a kind of shorthand to talk about climate change in general. “We have to remember our goal: reduce emissions of greenhouse gases,” John Murlis told me not long ago when we met in London. “That should be the world’s biggest priority.” Murlis is the chief scientific adviser to the Carbon Neutral Company, which helps corporations adopt policies to reduce their carbon footprint as well as those of the products they sell. He has also served as the director of strategy and chief scientist for Britain’s Environment Agency. Murlis worries that in our collective rush to make choices that display personal virtue we may be losing sight of the larger problem. “Would a carbon label on every product help us?” he asked. “I wonder. You can feel very good about the organic potatoes you buy from a farm near your home, but half the emissions—and half the footprint—from those potatoes could come from the energy you use to cook them. If you leave the lid off, boil them at a high heat, and then mash your potatoes, from a carbon standpoint you might as well drive to McDonald’s and spend your money buying an order of French fries.”

Measurements, baselines, are no doubt important. People need a way to show progress. We recently listened to a podcast by the folks who publish the Harvard Business Review and one of the guests was talking about Prius owners. Apparently, the cars have a special fuel consumption gauge that allow drivers to see how much fuel they are using at any given time. It's completely changed the way some Prius owners operate their cars, as they try to become ever more efficient.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Preserving Local Businesses

The Sun today has a story on the demise of Produce Galore, with some comments from local elected leaders and civic activists. It got us thinking: We channel so much energy these days into fighting stuff we don't want (highrises, Merriweather development, etc.) but not so much in saving that which we hold dear.

Here's a bit from the Sun story:

Said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, "I think it's just so sad. I can't help but believe that with support from the local government, we could prevent something like this. There must be something we can do to help family businesses that give such a unique, personal service to our community."

Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, noted that although the e-mail from Produce Galore said big-box stores are "surrounding" Columbia, those large stores are "in" Columbia, he said.

"[Rouse Co. and General Growth Properties], our planners and our elected officials have consistently let us down over the past several years and have allowed sprawl to take place within the bounds of Columbia, rather than creating and adhering to a meaningful plan," he said.

Bun Penny, Fire Rock Grill, Produce Galore. Is there a trend here?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Produce Galore To Close

Another sad announcement. This is a letter from the owners:

Dear Friends,

This is the time of the year that I am usually looking forward to a new season and gathering ideas for spring recipes for our Passover and Easter menus. However, it seems that this is no ordinary year. I have a heavy sense of foreboding. This last year has been an especially hard one at Produce Galore. Although we have been in denial for a while, it is time for us to face the facts…

The current economic conditions are not going to change any time soon. In fact they are going to get worse before they get better. Consumer buying trends have changed. They don’t include small businesses in neighborhood centers that don’t have anchor stores. It is hard to draw the customers away from the big box stores that have surrounded Columbia.

This is very hard for us. This really is a family business. Not only have all of our children and grandchildren worked here, but our employees are like family also. We know their families. Indeed, many of their children and grandchildren have worked here too. I particularly will miss the songs and laughter coming from the kitchen.

I have always loved to cook and have always seen food as a source of creativity, adventure, learning and bonding. Produce Galore has become more than a fruit and vegetable store. We tried to make it a celebration of food.On balance, this has certainly not been a financially rewarding 33-year venture.I am telling myself that there is more than one way to define a successful business. Doing something you love with people you love has been an enriching and unique experience. We have been lucky to know so many good people.

Speaking of good people, I also will miss our customers. When my daughter, Stephanie, had an accident 18 years ago that left her comatose, it was our customers who taught me that I could survive. Thank you…especially Rosalie. And, when I had cancer, customers again shared their strength.

While it is true that the marketplace is changing and there is not much room in today’s world for a store like Produce Galore, we will always be grateful for the support you have given us.

Thank you,

Margaret and Kent

Debt Relief -- Act Now!

Yesterday three pieces of mail showed up in our mailbox. One in an official-looking envelop advised "Request for Immediate Action - Time Sensitive Material Enclosed" and added "Warning: $2,000 Fine, 5 Years Imprisonment, Or Both For Any Person Interferring Or Obstructing With Delivery Of This Letter U.S. Mail TTT. 18 Sec 1702 U.S. Code."

Since it was addressed to "Property Owner" we opened immediately. Hmmm, HUD was announcing a new FHA program that allows us to CASH OUT up to 95 percent, and our credit rating is "NOT A FACTOR."

How great is that?

The next letter looked like a W-2 statement, except it was some form called a 4553-FHA. "Copy 1 For Recipient" urged us to please respond immediately. Line 2, our recorded lender,was "SUPPRESSED FOR PRIVACY." How thoughtful. We knew we could trust this one because it was stamped HUD and came with the "Equal Housing Opportunity" label.

The third, from the "Dept. of Maryland Notifications" came with another warning that the "enclosed Notice is intended for the sole purpose of the addressee and should be opened by the aforementioned only."

Hey, we were the aforementioned. Inside, we found out we had been instantly approved for a new loan.

We thought about these three pieces of correspondence as we read this story in WaPo about a plan to allow for-profit debt counseling companies to operate in the state.

Isn't it nice that so many companies out there want to help us with our debt problems?

A Columbia-based for-profit credit counseling company whose business practices are being reviewed in a number of states is on track to be licensed in Maryland under legislation moving through the General Assembly.

Maryland is one of only a handful of states to close its doors to for-profit firms that charge consumers deep in debt to find financial security. But AscendOne Corp. and its supporters say that the company has helped thousands of consumers in 35 states recover good credit and get out of debt. The legislation would allow the companies to operate in Maryland, just as nonprofit counselors do.

Opponents, including consumer groups that have fought the proposal for two years, call for-profits such as AscendOne predators cashing in on vulnerable homeowners struck by the home-foreclosure crisis.

"The bill's a disgrace," said Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery), the Judicial Committee chairman. "We've got an economy where people are really struggling. We need to make a profit on people whose debt are so high they need help?" Frosh was one of five senators to vote against the bill, which passed the Senate easily last week.

AscendOne said its business practices are legitimate and helpful to thousands of people in need of counseling. "We have not been accused by any government agency or attorney general of any wrongdoing," said AscendOne's chief operating officer, Michael Croxson.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Minding The Green

The Flier recently profiled a local Web company called Green Connected. Here's how the newspaper described the company's mission:

The site was launched in October 2007 by Del Karfonta, a vice president of Columbia Bank, as a networking tool for companies that claim or seek to be environmentally friendly and that want to do business with other such companies in Howard County and nationwide.

Karfonta was chairman of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce from 2005 to 2006. Right now, the site appears to be a kind of Yellow Pages for the green crowd. As such you get listings, but little independent judgment of the quality of the firms themselves. But the site is still relatively new. It'll be interesting to see how it evolves.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Hebron's Bomb(shell)

The Examiner said in this story that authorities waited three days to inform the wider school community about a homemade bomb in a lobby trashcan.

Two 15-year-old students are facing felony charges for setting off the device on Tuesday morning, but parents and students were kept in the dark until Friday afternoon.

“I think it’s a little ridiculous they waited so long,” said Caroline Rosenvold, a 17-year-old senior.

“An explosive [device] can be pretty dangerous, so I don’t think they should have waited.”

Mount Hebron Student Government Association President Allie Birmingham said, “I wish we would have found out sooner, [but] they were probably just investigating before they gave out any information.”

Principal David Brown told students over the loudspeaker about 15 minutes before school let out Friday and called a faculty meeting in the choir room after school, Rosenvold said. He also sent a letter to parents.

Brown called Mount Hebron High PTA President Tony Culler right after the incident, Culler said.

Here's the offical PD release:

Howard County Police are charging two 15-year-old teens with making an explosive device and detonating it this week at Mt. Hebron High School. The boys, both from Ellicott City, are facing a felony charge that carries up to 25 years in prison. No one was injured in the incident.

Students at the school reported to an administrator around 7:15 Tuesday morning that they heard an explosion in the lobby. Administrators determined that an unknown device had gone off in a trashcan where they detected an unusual odor. They viewed videotape from the school’s surveillance camera and identified students near the incident.

One of the two involved students was interviewed by administrators Wednesday morning. The school notified the school resource officer, who began an investigation and determined that the device was a homemade explosive made with household cleaning chemicals.

The teen was charged Thursday morning with making and using a destructive device, which is a felony, and reckless endangerment. He could face up to 25 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for the felony charge.

Last night, police identified a second student involved in making the explosive device. Investigators intend to charge him with the same two counts.

Police are reminding teens and parents that an incident involving a destructive device will result in a felony arrest. Making or detonating explosive material carries heavy penalties and should not be considered a prank.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Preachin' It

Here's some Civility in Howard insight from Heather Kirk-Davidoff in "grounded and rooted in love," a blog by the Kittamaqundi Community Church, followed by a comment from the Oakland Mills's Sandy Cederbaum.

Whose Civility?

Last week's weekly email newsletter from the Oakland Mills Village Center included a comment that caught my attention, and provided some new fodder for my on-going conversation (with myself and anyone who will listen) about the possibilities and limits of Howard County's Choose Civility Campaign.

The goals of this campaign are "to enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance in Howard County." No argument there. But it seeks to do this by teaching and reinforcing 25 "rules" for conduct. Is that what we really need? Or do lists of rules end up undermining the very things that would lead us to act "civilly" to each other?

Case in point:

We are facing challenges with the housing market and as a result several homes in Oakland Mills remain unsold and vacant. We have neighbors who are struggling to keep their homes or face foreclosure. The Oakland Mills staff receives calls daily about newspapers accumulating on driveways, leaves not raked etc. Our Covenant Advisor Debbie Bach makes every attempt to contact homeowners and realtors to request that properties are maintained. We are here to help the residents, and spend a lot of time listening to residents and do what we can to help them get through their challenging situations.

There are many neighborly acts of kindness that everyone can do to help one another. If you see that papers are accumulating and you know that the home is vacant, please take a minute to pick up the papers and put it out with your weekly recycling. If you know a neighbor may be facing some tough times stop by, give a call, see if there is something you can do to help them out. Often people who are facing life’s challenges feel like they are all alone and simple acts of kindness can go a long, long way.

To me, this note suggests the limits of rule-based community relationships. If I am walking through my neighborhood and see a house with unraked leaves I can think, "Here's someone in violation of the community covenant! I should report them!" Or, I can think, "I wonder if I my neighbor needs help?"

The later response is, in the end, the response that builds community. It's the response which on which creates the kind of neighborhood where people want to live. And that, in the end, is how best to get people to rake their leaves, pick up their papers and bring in their trash cans. I do those things NOT because there are rules telling me what to do. I do them because I know my neighbors and I want to honor them and the world we are building together.

Here's Sandy's reply:

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the piece I put in the OM eNEWS. There are many issues that are "covenant based" however, more times than not there are many things in life that should be handled in a neighborly way and that is what building a community is all about. Everyone needs to keep this in mind and hopefully opening up a discussion such as this will help to foster neighbor-to-neighbor relationships.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Maintenance Deferred

Wow, the blog Columbia Compass offers some compelling photos and commentary about the deteriorating condition of the piers and decking around Lake K.

Here's his conclusion:

The Howard County Framework document calls the Kittamaquandi Lakefront “the heart of downtown Columbia,” and in my opinion, it is our front porch. It is along these lakefront promenades that Presidential Cabinet Secretaries and Royalty once strolled. Today, it is in a sad state of disrepair, has some serious safety issues associated with it, and has one of our landmarks in danger of falling into the lake. I think it is time for the CA Board of Directors to come down from their ivory tower of a board room and listen to their staff. There is a real need for corrective maintenance and repair now.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ballfield Banners OK; Grants To Be Posted Online

The County Council approved a measure this week allowing advertising banners to stay up at places like Kiwanis park and the Soccer Association of Columbia's complex. Several sports programs depend on the revenue but the county received a complaint that the signs violated local ordinances.

According to the Examiner, banners are now permitted as long as they are not more than 8 feet off the ground and are not illuminated. (We'd like to link to the story but can't seem to find it online).

The County Council also approved plans to create a Web site that would make grants and loans of at least $30,000 searchable.

Howard Hates Helicopters

The Sun is certainly stirring it up with a story about "helicopter" parents, those who hover over their little ones and their teachers.

Here's how the article gets off the ground:

Carroll County school officials told a grandmother to stop coming to her grandchild's class after she spent two weeks studying the teacher. A Baltimore County teacher recalls being threatened physically by a parent who happened to be a boxer.

And in Howard County, overbearing parents are becoming such a concern that more than half the teachers surveyed say they have experienced "harassing behavior."

For the past two years, 60 percent of the teachers responding to a job satisfaction survey conducted by the Howard County Education Association reported that they have been subjected to harassment. Last year's survey specifically identified parents as the offenders in 60 percent of the cases. This year's survey, to be released in the coming weeks, will report similar results, said Ann DeLacy, the HCEA president.

"The workload is bad, but coupled with over-demanding parents, the job is horrible," said DeLacy, whose organization represents most of the workers in the school system.

Of particular concern are parents - dubbed "helicopter parents" for their tendency to hover over their children - e-mailing teachers, school officials say, with messages often excessive or abusive or both. The prevalence of incidents contributed to the Howard school system's decision to implement a civility policy last year and prompted the PTA to send a warning to parents about e-mail at the beginning of this school year.

"People were getting daily e-mails from the same parents," said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County schools. "It got to the point that the employees felt that they were being harassed."

The Sun received several comments, some of which suggest that one person's helicopter is another's frustrated parent.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Back To The Future?

We're late seeing this in WaPo and the other papers. Once it seemed county leaders were telling us that development should be focused on areas that already had it, to reduce sprawl. But it sounds like people are getting their fill, which might explain opposition to residential highrises and such.

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008; HO03

Howard County officials are unveiling bills to limit infill development in older neighborhoods by transferring density to other areas and curtailing certain building practices, initiatives expected to spark wide-ranging debate.

County Council Chairman Courtney Watson (D-Northeast County), a principal sponsor of the legislation, said infill development was a chief concern for voters in her district when she ran for the council in 2006. She has spent months working with the administration of County Executive Ken Ulman (D) on initiatives to preserve open lots, impose stricter environmental controls and limit new lots that share a single driveway.

"It's compatibility and protecting the integrity of existing neighborhoods," Watson said, adding that the measures focus on older, single-family neighborhoods in areas such as Elkridge, with large lots that can be subdivided.

However, Tom Ballentine, with the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said Tuesday: "We have to oppose parts of this package. The proposal goes far beyond the neighborhood issue of infill."

The measures are scheduled to be discussed by the Planning Board at 7 tonight at the George Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Dr., in Ellicott City. The public is invited to comment.

Community activists called limiting infill development in eastern Howard a top priority.

"It affects individuals intensely and directly. It's happening next door," said Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association. "This causes friction."

One measure allows owners of large lots in neighborhoods to sell building rights on undeveloped property, permanently preserving the lot. The building rights, usually amounting to a few housing units, could be purchased by developers for use in specified, higher-density areas, such as neighborhoods of townhouses, apartments and condominiums. That "bonus density" would allow the developer to exceed the usual maximum number of units per acre.

"The buying and selling of building rights is done at a very small scale, onesies and twosies," said Watson. "It's not so much that it's going to cause many problems in the surrounding area."

Even so, community activist Angela Beltram noted that one of the neighborhoods that could receive additional density is Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center, the county's sole planned golf course community. Turf Valley, on 809 acres west of Ellicott City, has encountered resident opposition to long-standing plans for a major expansion that includes more than 1,600 housing units, retail space and offices.

"The transfer elsewhere is what I'm concerned about," Beltram said of units. She added that the County Council, which will consider the legislation after the Planning Board, should know exactly how many areas could receive additional density.

Another bill imposes new environmental controls and limits the development of pipestem lots, residential lots that share a driveway.

"When you are developing in a neighborhood that's already established, it requires greater sensitivity than what's there now in the regulations," said Kimberley Flowers, deputy director for public affairs in the Department of Planning and Zoning. For example, she said, protecting mature trees and requiring more storm-water management study can maintain residents' privacy and keep runoff out of their basements.

But Ballentine, director of policy for government affairs with the home builders, said the new regulations on pipestem lots and storm-water management can apply anywhere in Howard, not just in established neighborhoods.

"The focus should specifically be on redevelopment of existing building lots and not stray into the western part of the county," he said.

Trying to comply with tighter storm-water management regulations "could be an expensive undertaking for the average homeowner" who's looking to remodel, build a deck or do new landscaping, he said.

"The question is whether property owners are aware of this," Ballentine said.