Friday, January 11, 2008

Heated Council Meeting in Chevy Chase

Is he taking a picture for that blog again?

The Town of Chevy Chase Town Council held an unusually well-attended and heated meeting on Wednesday night. Most of the meeting was dedicated to the proposal introduced by Councilmember Kathy Strom (above right) for a new moratorium on the issuance of new construction permits excepting emergency repairs or additions of less than 500 square feet.

Public Comments
Twenty-eight residents spoke during the public comments period at the start of the Town Council meeting. Bridget Hartman presented a petition in support of the moratorium signed by 267 residents of the Town. Numerous people spoke passionately for and against the moratorium.

I haven't seen nearly so much tension at a meeting of the Town Council, normally relatively sedate and poorly attended affairs, since the last moratorium proposal was introduced. I felt bad for Irving Kaminsky who had come to speak on another topic--in support of a sidewalk on the north side of Thornapple St. (Bruce Russell speaks in favor of the moratorium and asks for action on a new noise ordinance.)

Consideration by the Town Council
The conflict over the proposed moratorium among the residents was reflected in some unpleasant moments and tension on the Council. Mayor Linna Barnes deserves credit for her management of this difficult meeting. One might note that her attempts to keep the meeting on time and residents (and councilmembers) within time limits were not so that she could dominate the debate--she didn't speak much at all--but so that all could be heard and in service of a fair and civil process.

Councilmember Kathy Strom formally introduced her proposal for a new moratorium on the issuance of new construction permits with exceptions for emergency repairs or additions which expand the footprint of a house by less than 500 square feet. The moratorium would take effect after a public hearing and action by the Council.

Kathy explained that the moratorium would prevent the loss of more homes while the Council considered the proposed FAR (floor-to-area) ratio ordinance crafted by the Town's Land Use Committee. Mayor Linna Barnes seconded the proposal.

Councilmembers Rob Enelow and Lance Hoffman spoke against the proposal. Rob felt that moratorium proposal is "unfair" and disagreed passionately with those who would say that the ordinances adopted in the wake of the first moratorium has accomplished little:
Have these ordinances succeeded? No. But they were the only tools we had. It was the best we could do. If there were no tree ordinance, those crepe myrtles on Virgilia would be mulch. If there were no water ordinance, there would be no water board appeal on the Underwood project. Are the new houses still too big? Yes. But many of these projects would have been even larger. And there would be fewer canopy trees in Chevy Chase today.
Lance spoke in a similar vein, arguing that the moratorium "just does not make sense", is a forerunner of "more acrimony that is totally unnecessary" and would slow down consideration of the new FAR ordinance. (Councilmembers Lance Hoffman and Rob Enelow consult at left.)

While Rob and Lance spoke out against the moratorium, their comments implicitly acknowledged the justice of some pro-moratorium arguments. Rob said he was "upset at the scale of the new houses".
Rob further acknowledged that the moratorium proposal had given the Council a second "kick in the pants" to move more expeditiously to enact a new FAR ordinance. Lance promised to do "whatever it takes" to move expeditiously on the FAR ordinance and stated that he would support a moratorium in a month's time if enough progress had not been made on the ordinance.

At this point, Councilman Mier Wolf suggested that the Council hold a hearing early next month on the proposed moratorium. Mier's thought was clearly that the Council should work to move forward quickly with the new FAR ordinance in the hope that a moratorium would become unnecessary and further conflict averted. Mier's personal calmness--perhaps the benefit of experience--helped bring down the temperature of the debate a notch.

Kathy suggested an earlier hearing date but Mier's proposal was ultimately adopted with the support of Kathy and Linna. Rob voted no and Lance abstained.

Moving Forward
The Town Council would do the Town an enormous service if it moved expeditiously enough on the new FAR ordinance that further conflict within the Town over a moratorium were averted. However, this goal is highly ambitious and is going to take both planning and hard work in the part of the Council to achieve.

The Council needs to move immediately to schedule the public meeting (or meetings) for Town residents with the consultant on land use issues within a few weeks time, so that residents can have questions regarding the proposed new ordinance answered. This needs to be done now so that proper notice can go to Town residents.

The document drafted by the Land Use Committee explaining their proposal for the new FAR ordinance should be mailed out to all Town residents about one week before that meeting. Julia Miller, the Chair of the Land Use Committee, showed a calm and impressive command of these issues at the Town Council meeting when the proposed ordinance was introduced. The report issued by her committee is unusually clear and well-drafted--it answered a lot of questions I had about the proposal.

The meetings for residents with the consultant need to occur soon so that the public hearing on the ordinance can occur shortly thereafter--even as soon as a week later. Moving at this pace is necessary so that the Council will have made enough progress in consideration of the new ordinance to avoid a repeat of the conflict on display at the last month's meeting.

The Council may be tempted to delay the public meetings until it has had time to review carefully the new ordinance. However, the Council should hold its own meetings in tandem with this public process. In any case, the Council will likely want to make any changes (or not) in response to public comments so the public process will aid its own internal deliberations.

Oh, and maybe we can reprint one of Mayor Bill Hudnut's talks on civility in the Forecast. Now I know why he used to give them so often. Hopefully, everyone will do their best to remember that we're all going to be neighbors long after this difficult process is completed.