No Columbia, no Howard County Council?

3 minute read

This is Dividing Howard week here on my blog, as I discuss some topics related to my new book on the history of council council redistricting in Howard County, Maryland, and the broader events of Howard County politics from 1960 on. Today’s post poses the question: If Columbia didn’t exist in its present form, would Howard County have a county council and county executive?

In his recent post “Meanwhile, in an alternate universe…” Bill Woodcock of 53 Beers on Tap speculated on what would have happened in Howard County if the planned community of Columbia had never been built. His conclusion:

Howard County would have developed further along its major highways—I-70, US 40, US 29, US 1. … Without a major population center, rather several smaller ones, Howard County would've become an exurb of Baltimore and DC rather than a suburb. Pressure would be great to build more homes in Howard, absent a major employer or tax base. … In short, life in Howard County would have become radically different. Howard County would have become a balkanized bedroom community with no identity or clear sense of purpose. It would become sounthern Carroll County, on steroids.

I think this is pretty much on the mark. However at one point Bill mentions in passing what “the new charter government” would have done in the absence of Columbia. This is where I differ from him: As I discuss in chapter 1 of Dividing Howard, the fact that Howard County has a charter form of government, that is, a county council and county executive, is pretty much a direct result of the establishment of Columbia.

As Lewis Nippard, a member of the committee pushing for a charter change, said back in September 1963, “We do not believe the [existing] county commissioner form of government can meet the needs of the future as the county population begins to increase toward astronomical levels.” Nippard and others also pointed to the fact that Howard County had no incorporated towns or cities (in fact, it still doesn’t), and thus no real local government beyond the three county commissioners, who had to look to the Maryland General Assembly to enact any legislation needed to address Howard County local issues.1

As it turned out, Nippard was right about the “astronomical level” of population growth; as Columbia was created and new residents flooded in beginning in the late 1960s, Howard County population growth grew to over 10% a year, a rate that would have doubled the county population every seven years if it had been sustained. (See my blog post “Howard County population growth, 1950-2009” for more on this.) Absent the prospect of that growth I suspect that Howard County would have remained under the existing county commissioner system, and at most there would have been a push to formally incorporate Ellicott City (as Bill speculates).

The experience of neighboring counties is a guide here: Both Frederick County and Carroll County are situated similarly to Howard County in terms of their proximity to major major metropolitan areas, and both have experienced exurban development over the years. However neither of them had comparable developments to that of Columbia, and both also had existing incorporated towns and cities. Although both counties have considered or are considering moving to a charter form of government, both still remain governed by a Board of Commissioners. If Columbia had never existed I strongly suspect this would be true of Howard County as well.

One other key thing to note about Carroll and Frederick counties is that every county commissioner in both counties is a Republican. I’ll have more to say on that topic in my next post.

In the meantime I encourage you to check out Dividing Howard if you haven’t already; it’s only $2.99 from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and all royalties go to the local charity Voices for Children, which recruits and trains volunteer advocates to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in Howard County courts.


  1. For more on the Howard County charter push, including more quotes and complete links to primary sources, see chapter 1 of Dividing Howard.

For more on the various forms of government allowed for Maryland counties, see the page “Forms of County Government” published by the Maryland Association of Counties, and the documents linked to from that page.