Mike Davis has been active in the Howard County legal community, and the community in general, since 1982. The senior partner at Columbia-based Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny (DARS), he addresses the complexities of estate planning and wealth management. He works with DARS’s Estate Planning and Probate Practice Group to assist clients as they seek to protect their interests, considering the changes both in clients’ needs, and in federal and state laws.
Davis creates plans to leave a legacy that reflect his clients’ values. He handles the sensitive issues that are inherent in the discipline, and has enabled thousands of clients in the Howard County area to plan for their business succession, create effective advance medical directives, establish wills and trusts and create long-term care plans.
He has been professionally acknowledged for his acumen, earning the AV (the highest rating) from Martindale-Hubbell; being named as a Super Lawyer from 2011–17; being named as one of Maryland’s Legal Elite by SmartCEO; and receiving the Leadership Legacy Award from Leadership Howard County.
Yet, when asked what his avocation really is, Davis says, “Columbia,” and backs that sentiment by serving many area organizations. They include the Howard Community College Education Foundation, First Maryland Disability Trust and the Howard County Estate Planning Council, among others.
Davis earned his undergraduate degree from Penn State University in 1977 and his law degree from The George Washington University’s National Law Center in 1981.
What’s your take on the progress of the Downtown Columbia Plan?
No one is more impatient than I am. On that point, know that the building where our office is located is still the newest office building occupied in Downtown Columbia — and it opened in 2001. There have only been four office buildings built in the Downtown since 1988. Some are coming online soon, but none of the new ones are finished yet.
The low-density housing between the ring road around The Mall in Columbia and Gov. Warfield Parkway was supposed to be the site of more office space, but The Rouse Co. converted that to housing when they developed Columbia Gateway Business Park. When Rouse wanted to build more low-density residential on the Crescent behind Merriweather Post Pavilion, the county put a stop to it.
Then came a five- or six-year process of creating the new downtown plan, plus another several years before a shovel hit the ground. So, in short, until you see it around here, it’s hard to believe it. It’s been a long time in coming, but maybe now we’ll get a taste of what a real downtown can be.
What were your thoughts on what needed to happen with Downtown when the master plan was first discussed, during the charrette?
One thing that was missing was a shared vision of what we were trying to accomplish. There was much back-and-forth about what Jim Rouse would want, and that was nuts. People were sticking to ideas Rouse articulated in the 1960s, not his ideas that would have evolved over time.
For instance, Rouse was asked in a 1987 video interview for Columbia’s 20th Birthday about what Columbia’s population level might reach by 2007, some 20 years later. Rouse said Columbia would not be just 100,000 [population], but would grow to between 300,000 and 500,000 residents. Of course, we never grew to that size, but we could. Since he died in 1996, we don’t know what he would have thought of the debate swirling around what he would do in 2010. My bet is that he would chuckle and then say something like, “Think no small thoughts; make no small plans.”
One need that hasn’t been addressed in Downtown Columbia is for mass transportation. What needs to be done?
At least two things have to happen: We need to complete the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line from Downtown Columbia to Silver Spring. That’s in the works, and I think it’ll be up by 2020, or soon thereafter.
However, the real excitement will be in creating some kind of connectivity between Downtown Columbia and Columbia Gateway Business Park, then extending that connection, by rail, to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Baltimore and Washington. Gateway is larger than Downtown; from an acreage standpoint, Downtown involves 390 acres and Gateway encompasses about 884 acres. It has also just been named as an Innovation District. If the landowners can get together and work with the county and the community to rezone it to create a mix of office, retail and residential spaces in a walkable environment, we’ll have a winner.
Then, by connecting Gateway to Downtown with a BRT system, both the Downtown and Gateway can grow together into a truly dynamic city, while leaving most of Howard County much as it is today.
The arts community in Downtown is a differentiator for Columbia in the Corridor marketplace. What are your thoughts on recent developments?
Howard County has a rich tradition in the arts. What is exciting now is the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission now owns Merriweather and will be a source of support for other arts efforts in the community. The Columbia Festival of the Arts has a proven track record for finding and booking great performers. The Howard County Arts Council, hopefully, will be moving to the Downtown sometime in the next few years. We have the Inner Arbor Trust that has built the Chrysalis for smaller stages; and, we have Toby Orenstein and all that she can bring to our performing arts community.
Add in the Columbia Pro Cantare, the Columbia Chorus, Rep Stage at HCC and so many other local arts organizations, and it adds up to something really remarkable in Central Maryland — a true artists’ community that is already thriving. If we can harness just a bit of that energy, Columbia will, indeed, be unique in the Corridor.
What are your thoughts on the updates at Merriweather and the completion of the Chrysalis, the first phase of the Inner Arbor project in Symphony Woods?
I’m rooting strongly for Merriweather to succeed as a community venue. As it grows, I’d like to see more diverse offerings, such as a multi-night engagement of “Riverdance,” like they have at Wolf Trap. The shows that have been held in recent years have catered to the younger crowd.
As for Symphony Woods, the Inner Arbor Trust has an aggressive plan for more attractions. If they come to fruition, OK. I just hope it can live up to the advance billing, because if it doesn’t, we’ll have a lime green elephant in the midst of our redevelopment.
What’s your take on the degree of giving by the business and residential communities to nonprofits?
I’d like to see the locals give more to local charities. From my daily work, I know they can. There was a study commissioned about 10 years ago by The Columbia Foundation that revealed that there are many [individuals and businesses] in Howard County who could give generously, but relatively little was directed to the nonprofit community.
Unfortunately, that situation hasn’t changed much. The Howard Hospital Foundation does the best and Howard Community College Education Foundation does pretty well, but that success is not the norm here. So, while there are exceptions, I don’t believe that local philanthropy is a strong value yet in Howard County.
What’s noteworthy to you about Session ’17?
The End-of-Life Options Act. Save that topic for a later discussion, like when the bill actually passes (laughing).
What do you consider to have been the biggest challenge in your career?
When I moved to Columbia at the end of 1981 I knew no one, other than a few attorneys with whom I had spoken about setting up my own law firm straight out of law school. Learning how to market myself confidently to others when I had little professional self-confidence was extremely difficult.
What do you think are your greatest triumphs?
I won some great trials earlier in my career. I have been a part of some incredible political campaigns, such as Chuck Ecker’s and Allan Kittleman’s campaigns, that most people thought were hopeless, but they won. And, I have played a role in founding and building some wonderful professional and civic organizations through the years.
But my greatest triumphs were the two honors that my wife, Joanne, and I shared together; we were awarded honorary degrees from Howard Community College in 2007 and the Leadership Howard County Legacy Award in 2012.
What were your plans for DARS when you founded the firm? Did you think it would grow to 15 attorneys?
With my own individual general practice no longer viable, I decided to emphasize estate planning. However, I had many clients who needed other kinds of legal assistance. Since one of my original visions in starting my practice was to provide legal services to the Howard County market so that people didn’t have to go to Baltimore or Washington, I needed other like-minded attorneys to join me so that we could serve all of our clients’ needs.
When Susan Rapaport and Paul Skalny agreed to merge with me and Jeff Agnor, we were well on the way to fulfilling that vision. The growth since that merger in 2003 is based on both the growing complexity of the law and the growth in the number of our clients.
Do you think the level of accomplishment, and the egos, of many Columbia residents hold up progress?
Somehow collaboration and compromise have become dirty words. Additionally, people often look for some kind of conspiracy when public officials don’t “listen” to their petitions. Instead of taking the time to understand positions of our public officials, the naysayers look to assign some kind of negative motivation.
The result often is a polarized community where there are only winner and losers. No one really wins when arguments devolve to this level of discourse.