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Howard County Residents Split on Redistricting

Two Elkridge residents called for community; one wanted diversity.

Every 10 years, Howard County goes back to the drawing board to adjust its council districts based on the latest census data.

Currently, Elkridge and Ellicott City are represented by Councilwoman Courtney Watson-D, District 1, and Council Chair Calvin Ball-D, District 2.

District 1 has the largest population in the county, with 62,435 residents, so change is likely, according to Watson.

The job of the redistricting commission—seven Howard County residents appointed by the County Council—is to redraw district lines to ensure that districts have equal populations; have "common interest as a result of geography, occupation, history or existing boundaries”; and are “compact” and “contiguous,” according to the county government.

The idea of balance is important in redrawing the lines, according to commissioners. “You can have an impact on the community if you draw the line a certain way,” said Joan Becker, a redistricting commission member, in Elkridge at one of two public hearings on the issue in the past month. The other was held in Clarksville. 

Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, advocated for keeping Elkridge in one district.

He said he wanted to make sure “we’re not put in a situation where our quality of life suffers. ... We already know Route 1 and Route 40 are targeted for higher density, yet we don’t see plans for infrastructure ...”

Johnson said he feared the Elkridge community’s voice would get diluted if it had several representatives.

“It’s got to be our area not divided up,” said Doug Kornreich, who lives in Elkridge.

Sharing a district is important for communities, said Diane Butler, president of Saint John’s Community Association in Ellicott City. “I have 1,000 homes [in District 1] and I have about 29 or 30 that are sitting in District 2.” Butler said she wanted the whole neighborhood to be in the same district “so we can come to our association meeting and be discussing the same thing.”

Elkridge resident Dale Schumacker disagreed. “My preference would be ... to have a striped approach,” he said, explaining that the council lines could be drawn horizontally across Howard County. That would force people in the eastern part of the county to become familiar with what’s going on in western Howard, and vice versa, he said.

“To the extent that we narrow our focus ... to the extent that we ignore Columbia, we do a disservice,” said Schumacker. “We’re not that large of a county that we can’t care for folks in other districts.”

Becker responded, “We’re tasked with making districts along defined boundaries like Route 1 [and] Route 95.”

Johnson said he thought the Route 1 corridor shared similarities as a community, especially given regarding density.

“If there were a Route 1 district ... you would be heard, but in all likelihood the chances of getting things accomplished would go down,” said David Marker, member of the redistricting commission. “With it split, now you have 3 out of 5 [council representatives] paying attention.”

The three representatives for different parts of the Route 1 corridor are Watson, Ball and Jen Terrasa-D, whose turf—District 3—includes parts of Columbia and Jessup as well as Savage, Guilford and North Laurel. District 3 is the smallest in Howard County, with 52,086 residents.

“Has there ever been consideration to increase the number of districts?” asked Rita Chelton, who has lived in Elkridge for more than 50 years.

Marker replied that the charter review commission would be “the proper venue” for that inquiry.

Watson, Terrasa and Ball said in The Baltimore Sun that the option of adding more districts and council representatives should be explored, while Greg Fox (District 5; western Howard) and Mary Kay Sigaty (District 4; Columbia, Clarksville, Fulton) didn’t see the need.

“Everybody thinks that their area is growing the fastest,” said Marker at the Elkridge redistricting meeting. “People out west think they’re growing the fastest. The third district may be the one to grow the fastest because of the Route 1 infill.”

Larry Walker, chair of the redistricting commission, said, “At the end of the day in all that we do, we are one county, and we’re one county with five different districts. Regardless of what we come up with ...  if we continue to foster that attitude, we’ll be willing to listen to each other and meet everyone’s needs.” 

The commission, which was appointed in March, will take a hiatus for the summer. There will be a public work session on Sept. 6 and a public hearing on Sept. 19 in Ellicott City. By Oct. 15, the group must present a map to the County Council with recommendations for district lines. There will be additional hearings and the district lines must be ready for approval by March 2012.

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