Soon after he moved to the "new town" of Columbia, Md., four years ago, Bill Coughlan was nagged by a feeling of civic powerlessness. In one instance after another, from local budgets to location of community facilities, Coughlan observed the "citizens' lack of control over their own destinies" in the developer-managed town.
Columbia, insisted Coughlan, who until recently was chairman of its elected citizens council, needed self-government.
That sentiment has spawned a small movement in Columbia - now a city of 45,000 people. Residents' discontent with the community's costly private financing, a quasi-government controlled by the developer and what some say is the paternal attitude of the founding Rouse Co., have created agitation for change.
"It's sort of like a child growing up," said Roy Appletree, one Columbian grappling with the problem of the town's future. "Do you walk out of the house on your own, or what?"
One citizens' committee has been meeting to draw up a proposed city charter, which could be presented to the voters in November. "Columbia eventually is going to be a city of 100,000 in a few years, and we're going to need our own mayor and city council," said Luther Starnes, one resident who believes Columbia should be incorporated.
Yet another group has been promoting a less radical move, one that would give Columbia the feeling of independence and the tax breaks of a city but only limited self-rule. The group presented the Maryland General Assembly with a bill to make Columbia a special tax district for these purposes, but the complex legislation arrived too late to interest legislators this year.
"We'll try again next year," said Coughlan, who was a leader of this group.
Another contingent of Columbia residents prefers the status quo. Their don't-rock-the-boat sentiment is tied to their belief that the developers have provided well for them.
All of these options, however, have captured the interest of so few Columbia residents that one leader complained recently that promoting consideration of any alternate form of governance was like "operating in a vacuum."
"Columbia was pacified when the developer gave everybody everything (in the way of extensive community services that made Columbia more than simply a huge subdivision)," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, who has lived there six years. "The question now is to alert the inert, to get the people to be aware that this is not just a plantation."
The contemplation of Columbia's future comes at a pivotal period in the new town's development. Only one-third complete, Columbia has eight villages, a downtown and 800 businesses scattered across the rolling hills of former Howard County farms.
The atmosphere of the town, which is halfway between Washington and Baltimore, combines a sleek, understated modern look with traditional colonial and ranch-style homes amid airy, bucolic settings.
In founding Columbia, developer James W. Rouse sought to design "the next America," but he was also determined to make a profit. To accomplish this and be faithful to yet another concept - that residents should have some form of participatory government - Rouse established a quasigovernmental Columbia Association, which would plan, finance and operate the elaborate facilities that made the new town especially attractive, such as the bus system, swimming pools and tennis courts in every neighborhood, parks and public boating.
These facilities would be financed by a lien, actually a property tax on residents and businesses of 75 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and user fees that would in turn secure bonds for capital projects and the Columbia Association's operating expenses.
As the plan went, the majority of the association's board would be representatives of the developer at the outset, and the rest elected residents. In time, as Columbia grew and the developer's income increased, the residents would gradually gain representation so that by 1977, they would assume majority control, according to the original idea.
However, the nationwide economic slowdown during 1974-75 radically altered Columbia's development timetable. A drastic reduction in housing sales (and thus income) made the Columbia Association plummet to near bankruptcy.
The developer rescued its governmental arm and lent the Columbia Association $11 million. Until the remainder of the short-term debt (now about $8 million) is paid, "we will maintain our majority control of the board," said Michael Spear, general manager of Howard Research and Development, which manages Columbia.
The postponement of the residents' control until at least 1981 and the posibility of delays beyond that spurred some citizens into action.
"The fact is, we are a company town," said Ed Windsor, a former Columbia council member who is leading the movement to make the town a municipality. "Yet we are the third largest community in the state."
"I was on my village board three months until it dawned on me that I had stepped back somewhere in the twilight zone onto my high school student council," said Starnes. "The student council was designed to give the students the chance to think they were having a voice, when everyone knew better."
Besides this philisophical discontent, many residents "fell they have been short-changed" in the way the Columbia Association spends their money, said Windsor, a professor of urban studies at the University of Maryland.
"It's like giving someone your credit card. The residents don't even have veto power over charges to the public debt," he said.
As long as the Columbia Association is privately financed, the average household assessment of $80 a year is not deductible from personal income taxes. The privately financed debt also costs the community about $1 million more each year than the lower municipal bond rates available to them as a special tax district or an incorporated city.
Further, the Columbia Association's $36 million debt, which continues to grow, includes $20 million in operating debt, which would be forbidden in incorporated municipalities where, under state law, budgets must be balanced.
Windsor believes a city charter would be superior to a tax district for several reasons. Tax districts are being reexamined by the legislature; the assumed tax benefits under them are not automatic, and "most importantly, a city charter will absolutely guarantee that Columbia's debt will never become a county responsibility" he said.
But Coughlan and Appletree believe that such an extreme move would erect further barriers between two uncomfortable partners in Howard County - the suburban "Columbians" and the rural "countians."
"We get good services from the county," said Appletree, a council member. By separating from the county "we'd probably lose some of our small town flavor."
Compounding the debate is the inevitable influence of election-year politics and the promise that the Columbia issue will be exploited in the County Council races since that body must sanction Columbia's ultimate governmental choice.
There currently are no incorporated communities in Howard County and counties' opposition to such moves across the state have prevented any new cities from forming since the early 1950s.
Several Howard County Council incumbents have already expressed their support for the tax district plan and resistance to Columbia's incorporation as a city."Rather than immediately jumping into this municipal thing," said Lloyd Knowles, a biomedical engineer who chairs the County Council, "I'd rathersee us take this a lot slower in a very thoughtful way."