The Columbia Council has agreed to study the idea of "annexing" 652 acres in southeastern Howard County owned by the Rouse Co., a move that could make a proposed controversial development a part of Kings Contrivance village.

The idea, put forth by Rouse executives who plan to develop the so-called Key property, which straddles Interstate 95 between Gorman Road and Route 216, would result in a taxlike lien in exchange for access to the Columbia Association's recreational programs and services. The area would fall under land covenants governing Columbia's collection of villages.

The Key property, south of a Kings Contrivance neighborhood, is undeveloped, but officials from Rouse--the company that created Columbia 35 years ago--plan a Columbia-style development there. It would include 1,216 houses, town homes and apartments, as well as about 1.7 million square feet of employment and retail space. The mixed-use development plan has been fought for years by some nearby residents, and they are waiting for a Circuit Court decision on an appeal of the county's approval of the project.

If the decision is upheld in court, the first residents should arrive in 2001, Rouse Senior Vice President Alton J. Scavo said. They would have a Laurel mailing address, but if the land was placed under the covenants of the Columbia Association, they would be residents of the Kings Contrivance village, which has about 11,000 residents in three neighborhoods.

Scavo said a decision isn't needed immediately, but Columbia Association officials want to start reviewing the implications. They directed staff members to seek answers to several questions about the "annexation," and they are expected to discuss the issue at upcoming council meetings.

"I think we really need a written proposal . . . as to what they're asking us to do and what they're providing, at a minimum," said Long Reach village council representative Cecilia Januszkiewicz.

Rafia Siddiqui, the Columbia Association's vice president for administrative services, offered a preliminary look at the issues surrounding the "annexation" at the council meeting last week. She estimated that the move would cost the association in the short term--about $3.7 million over the next decade--but would be a financial boon in the long run. The added revenue from liens would provide "a significant financial benefit till eternity," Siddiqui said.

The Columbia Association's lien on property owners is 73 cents per $100 of property value. It pays for recreational facilities and open space.

Siddiqui acknowledged that her numbers were subjective, based on the building pace and property value estimates of Rouse officials. At least one council member wants the association to dig deeper to see whether those numbers are realistic.

"I can't vote for it if we can't verify the numbers," said Hickory Ridge village representative Jean S. Friedberg Jr. "We simply can't make a decision of this magnitude and risk based on somebody else's evaluation."

Aside from the financial implications, questions remain about whether the parcel is too far from Columbia to access its services easily and whether the public would go for the plan.

Most council members seemed generally supportive of the idea, but River Hill village representative Adam Rich questioned whether the Columbia Association needed to bother at all with the "annexation." "On a philosophical note, I'm personally concerned to some extent," he said at last week's meeting. "Is this where we want to put all of our efforts?"

In 1976, Columbia officials brought into their management more than 700 acres that is now Huntington, a neighborhood in Kings Contrivance a few miles north of the Key property across the Middle Patuxent River.

The association also has "annexed" other properties, including 712 acres into Dorsey's Search village in 1968 and 380 acres of the Gateway business park in 1986.

If the council rejects the proposal, Scavo said, it would be "no big deal." Rouse would develop its own homeowners association, modeled after the Columbia Association, albeit smaller, providing similar services and amenities. "It was a courtesy," Scavo said of Rouse's decision to approach the Columbia Association about the matter. "If we didn't ask, we felt we were really doing ourselves and them a disservice."

The advantage for Rouse and the Key property, he said, would be "having an organization which is proven." Either way, he said, the property would be managed like a Columbia neighborhood.

"It's going to have covenants one way or another, because that's the only structure we know," Scavo said.