Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Maryland Blue Crab Vote

The state Democratic party has been running a Presidential Poll that anyone can participate in. I have. And I think it is interesting to see what the opinion is of those who have voted. It is obviously unscientific so the blog owner here, who is a college professor, may bounce me for even mentioning something so crass. But as the ol' saying goes "when the cat is away the mice will play". So play I will.

Unlike the buzz on the national scene for Obama and Clinton, in our corner of the world Obama is basically kicking butt of all announced candidates -- and not only Hillary's but Edwards and Richardson and the rest of the crew.

The fact that Gore is in second confirms what I have gotten when talking with other political activists the past month or so. Gore seems to be the reprising Mario Cuomo's 1992 role as the favorite son who sits on the sideline with his plane set to take-off and no one on board. I know of several local electeds who would sign up for Gore tomorrow if he announced today. But so far he is doing a Cuomo.

So without the afterglow of Gore's Inconvenient Truth we have a race of Obama and Clinton. I still am undecided between Edwards and Obama. But I am leaning towards Edwards.

Obama seems to be the Howard Dean of 2007/8. It seems all the new political activists are for Obama as they were a political generation (four years) ago. Like I was in 2004, I want Obama to do something to justify his high standing. But maybe it is as one hard-core supporter of Barack's told me after their organizing meeting pre-Spring Ball "about half of the people in the room were never involved in a previous campaign." So Obama seems to have found a way to expanded the base of Dems that the others can only dream of.

Edwards is holding firm in the 3rd position. Can he break away from the rest of the pack and join Hillary and Barack at the head of the parade? He is the strongest 2nd choice candidate. So there is hope for him.

Things will heat up with the 2nd Democratic debate this Sunday on CNN. I plan on getting together with some other activists to see how the players play. I will report on my findings. Until then watch to the MD Dems web site and be ready to vote for your favorite candidate when June rolls around.

Remember, the cat is away. ;)


A Million Little Pieces

Read my first post from Kosovo's capital, Pristina, as well as how "you can't get there from here" in the former Yugoslavia which is done splitting up just yet.


Planning Chair Agrees with the Gov

WTOP reports:

As studies ramp up on the proposed Purple Line, which would connect Bethesda to New Carrollton, transportation officials seem to be looking much more toward the below ground option.

Royce Hanson, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board, talked to the Maryland Transportation Authority about it.

"Right now they are doing an alignment study, looking at where the line should go exactly and determining how much of it should be a tunnel or on the surface. And, they are placing a lot more emphasis on tunneling than they had in the past," he says.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley would seem to agree with that assessment. He recently gave a speech to transportation officials asking, "Could you imagine if people 30 or 40 years ago had said, 'We want to build a Metro system, but it all has to be above ground and it can only be fast bus.' What kind of region would we have?"

However, building tunnels is expensive. New state-of-the-art boring systems are very costly as Virginia has found out in the Tysons rail debate. In Maryland, where the state is facing a seriously depleted transportation trust fund, expenses will be even more closely monitored.

The Purple Line is proposed to run through Chevy Chase, Silver Spring and College Park.

"To the extent that tunneling is used, it will probably be less controversial," says Hanson. "But these matters have to be worked out in terms of what ridership is, what cost would be, and we are many months away from having those answers."

Looks like the State is getting more serious about considering tunneling.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Good Morning, Novi Pazar!

You can read my posts over on the Agonist on language politics in Yugoslavia (do Bosnians need a translator to understand Serbs?) and random observations on Novi Pazar.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mike Miller On Political Pulse

Maryland Senate President Mike Miller will be on the "Political Pulse"political talk show on Channel 16 TV in Montgomery County on Thursday, May24th at 9 p.m. and Tuesday, May 29th at 9:30 p.m.The main topic will be the looming $1.5 Billion budget shortfall that theState is facing and the possible solutions thereto. Also, President Miller discusses his possible retirement, other bills passed during the 2007 Legislative Session, working at his family's general store when he was a teenager and the Iraq War.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Good Morning, Novi Pazar!

You can read my first post from Novi Pazar (means "New Bazaar" in Serbian) over at The Agonist. Still no news on the Purple Line but you can read about how people at the local university run by the Mufti of Novi Pazar think that Wahabism is a bad influence on Muslims who make up a majority of this city's population.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hello from Belgrade

Hello to all. I've arrived safely in Belgrade. It is wet and chilly here--oddly like it was in DC last month when my friend from Belgrade was visiting us! You can read my cranky description of travel here and some fast first impressions over at The Agonist. Of course, the most harrowing part of the journey by far was trying to check in at Dulles.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Purple Line Planning Meeting

Pam Browning, a leader in the fight to save the trail which currently exists along much of the route of the proposed light-rail version of the Purple Line, sent me the following comments on the Purple Line Planning meeting held yesterday:

The light rail Purple Line is all about development. It was conceived over 20 years ago as a single track trolley--not to solve transportation problems--but as a way to raise development ceilings in Bethesda and along Connecticut Avenue. That explains why there has never been a need for ridership studies. Yes, Sec. Porcari indicated that their studies have shown low projected ridership, but when Senator Madaleno asked Mike Madden for the studies, Mike told him that there had been none since the 1990's. (That's either amazing or unbelievable.) Those earlier studies, by the way, showed greater ridership for the Outer Purple Line.

Now, at today's Planning Board Meeting, Mike Madden stated that their recent ridership data indicates that folks along the eastern part of the Purple Line aren't so interested in using transit to get to Bethesda, but instead are interested in short rides to get to Metro, etc. Mier Wolf pointed out that MTA could save a lot of money by providing Ride-On Buses.

To reinforce the point that development fuels the Purple Line, Ed Asher also came before the Planning Board today and asked the Board to write Chevy Chase Land Company's development plans into the Functional Master Plan. This would be Mega Development around the light rail station on Connecticut Avenue, where CCLC owns 23 acres on the east side of Connecticut Avenue! MTA had previously asked CCLC to develop plans for the light rail station there. CCLC also owns property on the west side of Connecticut Avenue, but Asher said he wouldn't make any requests of the Planning Board regarding that property--today.

You may recall, CCLC was a big (not so popular) player in the development of Friendship Heights.
No doubt Purple Line proponents vehemently dispute her assertions but the lack of ridership studies to back up this major capital investment was a major and shocking surprise to me when I first learned about it. The state and county studies of the Purple Line should include an analysis of the impact on traffic on Connecticut Ave. and other major arteries as a result of new development permitted as a result of the creation of the light rail. My hunch is that most new trips generated by development at Chevy Chase Lake would be taken by car and that there would be a net increase on traffic on both Wisconsin Ave. and Connecticut Ave.

You can see Mike Madden's presentation from the meeting yesterday online. Chevy Chase residents can likely expect an encore performance at the Town Meeting on the Purple Line on June 6th at 7PM in the Town Hall.

P.S. I welcome the comments from "purple line supporter" (I like to think civil dialogue is always welcome even if some of the opinions expressed aren't the same as my own) but would also encourage him or her to identify him or herself, as I do on this blog.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Iowa ... for a day

Welcome readers. As a two-timing participant of the Iowa Caucus you get use to seeing Presidential candidates, their surrogates, high level campaign people and talking heads at the local pancake cook-off. So getting to meet a candidate in person is as normal as road rage... oops wrong analogy. Well, yesterday our little corner of the world was better than Iowa.

Political attention when it is focused on the Capital Region is almost always on the White House and Congress, not Montgomery County. In the span of three hours we had John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson come for visits. Normally local political junkies need to travel to New Hampshire the site of the nation's first primary to get this close and personal with the candidates, although face time at two of the events cost serious money. So Montgomery County is in play as part of the key first primary: the money primary.

John Edwards and Barack Obama came for fund raisers at private homes in Bethesda and Potomac respectively. Bill Richardson was at a free event sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and held at Ohr Kodesh Congregation on East-West Highway. Barack's fund raiser was at the home of Josh Rales, the former Democratic US Senate Candidate.

I was able to attend the Edwards event in Bethesda gratis. I have not endorsed Edwards but my choices have been narrowed to either Obama or Edwards. My Illinois roots pine for the hometown Obama; while my most recent past (I supported Edwards in 2004) pulls for the Carolinian.

This was my first time meeting Edwards and he is as charming in person as I expected. He obviously loves people as he worked the room quickly but not so quickly that it resembled a NASCAR race -- more like an Amish buggy race, first gear but focused.

His theme was an unusual one for Presidential politics. Having heard over a dozen Presidential candidates over the years, I expected something about the deficit, health care or bad, bad Bush. His theme was international. But not the obvious war in Iraq. Rather it was how we could be a source of good in the world rather than being viewed as a bully.

He talked about how we could fund free primary schools across the globe, including here for a few billion (yes, billion) but that was pennies compared to what we are spending on the war with the collateral damage of being the aggressor in Iraq. That spending this money would get young Muslims out of the madrases and therefore away from the recruiters of terrorism. According to Edwards, we would not go it alone. (Maybe we would finally have a "coalition of the willing" that was welcomed.) He envisioned an America that was patriotic without the rest of the world staring down the barrel of a gun.

So it was not the red meat type of speech that I expected from someone running for Mayor of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but I did notice that Edwards connected with his audience. As a trial lawyer, he is skilled at leading folks to a conclusion. Now is this a winning message? Hard to say. Can this be packaged into a 30 second commercial? I doubt it. Should America's next C-I-C be asked what role we should play on the world stage when our credibility has been destroyed by Bush's blind revenge protecting his father? Yes.

I could not make the Richardson event and the Obama event would not open the doors for me like I got from the Edwards camp, so if you attended one of these two events please post here and share with us what you observed.

The politics is warming up and it is not from global warming. It is the money season.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Welcome Kevin Gillogly

I am getting ready to travel to Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro for three weeks for the State Department. In Serbia, I'll be lecturing about American democracy over the course of a week at the University of Novi Pazar, a majority Muslim town in the Sanjak region near the Serbian border with Montenegro. In Kosovo, I am talking primarily about different models of managing ethnic divisions in democratic countries--an appropriate topic as Kosovo is currently administered by the United Nations and divided between its Albanian majority and Serbian minority. Finally, I am finishing up in Montenegro. Hopefully, this time I'll avoid dislocating my shoulder during my visit to this beautiful country which has become independent since I last visited it in 2004.

As this blog about Maryland and not about the Balkans, I'm pleased that Kevin Gillogly has agreed to pinch hit at take over while I'm away. Here is how he describes what he has been up to politics-wise for the past few years:

I have lived in Silver Spring / Wheaton since the early 90's and got involved in local elections when my state senator ran a long-shot race for Congress; he won. Emboldened by Chris Van Hollen's win in 2002, I joined the Democratic Party as a precinct official in District 18. In 2006, I joined up with another long-shot race that of Marc Elrich for County Council for At Large. My track record is 2 for 2 for local issues. Recently moved out of District 18 and now live in Colesville a few blocks south of the proposed ICC. Hmmm maybe that should be my third battle. Good things always happen in threes.
Kevin is a lively observer of the local political scene so I am pleased that he has agreed to drop in while I'm away. If you're curious about what I am doing in the Balkans, you can drop by The Agonist. Internet permitting, I am hoping to blog there about my travels.


Gov Supports Subway Purple Line

In a speech on transportation, Gov. Martin O'Malley stated that he prefers a "subway" version of the Purple Line instead of various above-ground alternatives:

The region has ‘‘one of the greatest Metro systems in the world,” he said. ‘‘But it will not continue to be the greatest if we don’t invest in our own time.”

He pledged to ‘‘advance the Purple Line,” which is envisioned as a light-rail line or a rapid transit bus line.

O’Malley said he prefers a subway system for the Purple Line, which has yet to receive federal approval. An ‘‘obsession” with above-ground lines and rapid bus service has ‘‘stymied the Red Line in Baltimore,” he said.

‘‘Can you imagine if people 30 years ago, 40 years ago, said, ‘We want a Metro system, but it has to be above ground and fast bus’?” he asked the audience. ‘‘What ... kind of region would we have?”

The interconnection between a subway version of the Purple Line and and the already existing Red Line would be much quicker and smoother. Above-ground light rail or rapid bus options would require changing lines via a bank of elevators, probably like the Jenifer St. entrance to the Friendship Heights stop. Besides being safer, it would also save all of the thousands of trees along the existing trail from destruction.


I Feel Thinner Already

Montgomery County has banned trans fats:

Montgomery's measure follows similar legislation in New York and Philadelphia, which ordered trans fats removed from restaurant menus this year and next. The county's new health regulation will take effect in January for restaurants and other establishments serving food and in January 2009 for establishments offering baked goods, other than packaged goods made outside the county.

Sara Lee cakes, for example, will be exempt. Dunkin' Donuts, which bakes doughnuts in its stores daily, will have to comply. The annual church supper, which fits the county's definition of a food service establishment, would have to stop using trans fatty oils unless organizers get a waiver from the county health department. Foods with 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving are allowed.

Locals may miss some treats at the Tastee Diner though:

Gene Wilkes, owner of Tastee Diners in Bethesda and Silver Spring, said the ban will force him to eliminate certain items, such as lemon meringue pie and chocolate cream pie, which he buys from a supplier. His popular biscuits, made in bulk at the diners from a General Mills mix that contains trans fats, will be a no-no. He said he'll begin making them from scratch, most likely.

Wilkes said he has begun to use healthier oil for deep-frying and grilling. And soon, butter, not less costly margarine, will be on the hundreds of pieces of toast his 24-hour establishments serve each day. But he is annoyed about the treatment of packaged foods.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Chevy Chase Donates $10,000 to Rosemary Hills

The Chevy Chase Town Council voted unanimously to donate $10,000 to help upgrade the playground at Rosemary Hills Elementary School, located in the town, at its meeting last week. According to the presentation made by a committee of parents, staff, and the principal, this funding brings the total amount raised to around $25,000. Hopefully, other municipalities in the school district will help them meet their goal of raising $40,000.

At the same meeting, Linna Barnes and Rob Enelow were sworn in for new terms by Town Clerk Andi Silverstone. The Town Council also elected new officers for the upcoming year. Mayor Linna Barnes, Vice Mayor Rob Enelow, and Community Liaison Mier Wolf will retain their posts while Kathy Strom and Lance Hoffman will swap. Kathy will now serve as Treasurer while Lance will serve as Secretary.

The Town will host a meeting on the Purple Line on June 6th at the Town Hall. After a presentation by MTA Project Director Mike Madden, town residents will have a chance to comment on the project. Speaking order in the comment period will be determined by numbers distributed starting at 6:30PM.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Will the Terrapin Kill the Purple Line?

The Washington Post reports that eight students wrote the University of Maryland administration to support the Purple Line:

In an April 25 letter, eight students urged university President C.D. Mote Jr. to "become an outright champion" of the proposed Purple Line, saying the school's "relative silence on the project is casting an unneeded shadow of uncertainty on the planning process." Tunneling a train beneath the College Park campus, as administration officials have urged, could make it prohibitively expensive, the students said.

They asked university officials to avoid "mistakes" made with Metro's Green Line. The College Park station was built almost a mile from the campus of 35,000 students, requiring an inconvenient walk or shuttle bus ride. The letter was copied to 30 federal, state and local political leaders.
However, much like opponents of the above-ground light rail elsewhere, administration officials would much prefer an underground version of the Purple Line:

Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning and engineering, said state officials agree that an aboveground line would be more viable. A one-mile tunnel beneath the campus would cost roughly $200 million to $300 million, about 10 times the cost of a one-mile aboveground line, he said.

Kay said university officials have long favored an underground system out of concern for pedestrian safety along busy Campus Drive, the school's main road, where a transit line probably would run. Although the exact location of a campus station hasn't been determined, Kay said, it probably would be near the campus center.

"We're working to convince them it can be built and operated safely," Kay said. "We've seen a lot of examples elsewhere where light rail or buses operate through campuses in a very safe way."

The university "is a major constituency along the line," he said. "We're not going to implement this project over their objections."

Daddio said the students were responding to a letter that J. Frank Brewer, interim vice president for administrative affairs, sent to state officials in late March, stating that "the university does not see 'at grade' [light-rail transit] as an option in the center of our campus."

The Diamondback reports that the University's lack of support for the light rail could be the final blow to the project:

But with a price tag that could exceed $1 billion, questions remain about whether it will receive the necessary federal funding.

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George's and Anne Arundel) said the university's uncertain stance could quash the Purple Line's growing support.

While the university has no official veto on the transit-way, Peña-Melnyk said its clout has made its blessing essential to push similar projects through local bureaucracies. In the past, the university's political pull has won millions of state dollars for conducting traffic studies and building new academic buildings.

"Perhaps we could go forward without them, but it's better to act with honey than vinegar," she said. "The university doesn't have a vote, but any project needs consensus."

If the school opposed the plan, "that will kill the project," Peña-Melnyk said. "Dr. Mote needs to retract that letter."

Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Frank Brewer said the university did not oppose the Purple Line, but rather any alignment that might run it at ground level through Campus Drive.

"It's a safety concern," he said. "If you've been at Campus Drive in the middle of the day, it's just the most congested place in the world as it is. The Purple Line would just add conflict."

Instead, Brewer proposed an underground track or routes that would skirt the campus periphery.

But Madden said cost constraints forced the MTA to rule out both options long ago. MTA traffic monitors have already scouted the road, and will release a traffic study to clarify the Purple Line's potential impact this summer.

Remember that there isn't even a ridership study that validates the idea of building the light rail above ground. The politics of this proposal increasingly look bad. Its political support is wide but not very deep. Councilman Steve Silverman made the Purple Line the centerpiece of his unsuccessful well-funded county executive bid last year. Gov. Martin O'Malley supports funding the Purple Line but he has made the ICC his first priority and also supports the Baltimore Red Line as well as the Upcounty Corridor Cities light rail which have far less opposition. Our green governor may also be reluctant to tear down thousands of trees along the existing trail--a necessary part of the project. Did I forget to mention that the state faces a $1.5 billion deficit?


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stormwater Management

Only in her second year in the General Assembly, Delegate Jane Lawton (D-18) sponsored the major piece of environmental legislation to pass this year. Here is a synopsis of the legislation which was lauded by the Baltimore Sun in an editorial:

The Stormwater Management Act of 2007 is the strongest stormwater law in the country. It requires developers to use Environmental Site Design (ESD) as the primary method for managing stormwater. The purpose is to curb urban runoff, which is a significant and growing source of pollution in our State's tributaries and in the Chesapeake Bay. Urban run-off carries pollution from parking lots, roads, and other impervious surfaces to the Bay. This run-off carries nitrogen, phosphorous, bacteria, sediment, insecticides, herbicides and metals such as copper, lead and zinc. These are the pollutants which are destroying sea life in the Bay and are harmful to its recreational use as well. If runoff is not managed properly, it also washes out streams, as the rainfall hits asphalt and accelerates the heat and the flow, entering streams at speeds that erode stream banks and scour stream floors.

This legislation is needed to ensure that as development increases, we are doing all we can to protect our tributaries and the Bay. The facts show that low impact design techniques are usually less expensive in the short and the long term. Such site design is a versatile planning tool and flexible enough to be used on most projects. The bill provides that when ESD cannot work, the developer is allowed to use standard management practices. The new regulations are not applied to small projects like infill development on single lots.

Makes me proud I worked on her campaign.


Duchy's Letter on Virginia Tech

In a letter to the Washington Post, Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) rightly points out the lack of funding and coverage of mental health programs:

The May 7 front-page article "Cho Didn't Get Court-Ordered Treatment," about the failure of Virginia's mental health system to get treatment to Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho, missed an important point. It is one thing for judges to order that individuals get help, but if there aren't comprehensive, fully funded and effective treatment programs in place, such directives are merely good intentions with no place to land.

It is not the fault of judges or of families of the mentally ill when society's goals are thwarted by the system's shortcomings. It is the responsibility of political leaders to ensure that treatment programs are in place. As a clinical social worker, I agonized with families about the emotionally and financially draining path to recovery, a road that is full of obstacles and setbacks. As a government official, I'm dedicated to public services that provide families with the resources they need to help loved ones.

The Virginia Tech tragedy can help us to understand that in cases like this we must not blame the victim, the courts or law enforcement.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Where the Sidewalk Begins

According to the Gazette, Kensington Councilman Al Carr is pushing for a new sidewalk as a way of improving pedestrian safety in his town along Connecticut Ave.:

Mayor Peter Fosselman started planning the meeting in March following the death of Karen Shprintz-Grossman of Potomac. The Temple Emanuel schoolteacher died from injuries sustained after she was struck by a car while crossing Connecticut Avenue at Dresden Street.

Three fatalities have happened near Dresden Street since 1991.

‘‘Connecticut Avenue is not the Beltway,” Chris Schiponi, of Kensington, told the panel of representatives. ‘‘How many people have to die in our town before you take action?”

A sidewalk on the southbound side of Connecticut Avenue from Washington Street south to Saul Road may help reduce pedestrian fatalities, Carr said.

‘‘You can walk from the District all the way up Connecticut on sidewalks except for the gap right here,” Carr said of the missing sidewalks on that stretch of Connecticut Avenue.

Officials with the State Highway Administration said in 2002 that installing a sidewalk was possible but expensive, and not much has changed in five years.

In 2002, a steep slope in the area would have required larger easements from property owners and retaining walls to hold back the dirt at an estimated cost of $228,000.

County Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, who once served as mayor for that town, said she noticed improved driving conditions on Strathmore Avenue after SHA expanded the sidewalks and installed more streetlights. . . .

Del. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington said he lives near the University Boulevard intersection and noticed a ‘‘bottleneck” effect that may be causing problems all along Connecticut Avenue.

‘‘We need to ease the traffic through the community core,” he said. ‘‘Traffic slows so much right there that when people get freed they jet out of there.”

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington said the state lawmakers could hold SHA’s ‘‘feet to the fire” in order to keep traffic discussions and solutions coming.

Steps need to happen to develop Kensington into a community where residents feel safe walking around town, Madaleno said.

Pedestrian safety was also a factor in WMATA's surprise decision to cancel development at the Forest Glen Metro stop:

As residents continued to raise concerns about pedestrian safety in and around the Metro area, and county officials worried the project may not mesh well with the surrounding single-family detached homes, however, WMATA has stopped the talks with developers.

The next step for WMATA is to continue working with Montgomery County and the State Highway Administration to ensure community concerns, specifically pedestrian safety, are addressed before any other plans are formulated, Bottigheimer said.

Community members are happy that the Metro property will remain untouched for now.

‘‘We were very encouraged to hear them talk about pedestrian safety,” said Adam Pagnucco, a member of the Forest Estates Community Association. ‘‘That’s what we want to hear.”

The nearby Forest Glen Road and Georgia Avenue intersection was named the most congested intersection in the county, according to the 2006 Highway Mobility Report, which was released by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and some residents have called for a tunnel under Georgia Avenue.

Pagnucco said residents were concerned about the already congested intersection getting worse with added housing and the school system being inundated with more students than it can handle. He said nearby Oakland Terrace Elementary School already has several portable classrooms and is about 300 students over capacity.

Paul Gordon, president of the Forest Estates Community Association, sarcastically called the intersection ‘‘our favorite intersection of death.”

No doubt the County's sluggish housing market also played a role in killing the project for now. Hopefully, any new plans will address these pedestrian safety concerns when WMATA is ready to try again.


Gazette on Planning Board Meeting

Someone at the Gazette must have thought my remark at the Planning Board Forum on growth policy in Montgomery County was pretty snappy; they made it their lead quote in their article about the meeting:

The County Council needs to make more realistic decisions in forming its policy that guides and limits growth in Montgomery, residents said at a public forum Saturday at the county Planning Board’s offices in Silver Spring.

‘‘Building a whimsical bench by a bus stop does not mitigate traffic,” said David Lublin of Chevy Chase.

‘‘Let’s stick to the plan ... not allow these little fudge factors that allow the plan to become eight times larger than the plan says,” said Lublin, who was among about 100 residents and others with interests in development at the meeting.

I confess to wishing the second quote had been more coherent but I hope the gist of the idea was clear.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Report on Growth Policy Forum

The Montgomery County Planning Board held its Growth Policy Forum on May 5th at M-NCPPC headquarters in Silver Spring on Saturday. I attended the meeting along with Pat Burda, the Chair of the Town of Chevy Chase Long Range Planning Committee.

Presentation of Growth Policy Recommendations
Karl Moritz, Chief of the Research and Technology Division of the Planning Department, presented the report and recommendations of his department's Growth Policy Study. The actual report is long and hard to digest so I recommend the Summary Report to get a good overview of the recommendations. It would be great if the Department would post a copy of Mr. Moritz's powerpoint on their website. Unfortunately, his presentation was longer than the hour alloted to it so some important slides whizzed by the audience.

The recommendations were complex and hard to digest. However, a few points grabbed me. The Planning Department made a few recommendations that should tighten measurements of growth capacity which should make it harder to gain approval for new developments or subject developers to increased fees if developments are approved.

First, the Planning Board wants to revise the definition of school capacity so that the definition is closer to the MCPS definition of capacity. They also suggest raising the school facilities payment, the extra money a developer pays when projected increases in students are above the capacity of the schools to absorb them. The staff also recommends that the practice of borrowing capacity from another school cluster should cease.

I believe that Mr. Moritz admitted that this fee has never been assessed in the past and no development had been stopped due to problems of school capacity. However, I couldn't tell if this would change if the staff recommendations are adopted. Did anyone else who attended the meeting catch the answer to this question?

Changes in the calculation of transportation capacity were also proposed by Planning Department staff. The primary recommendation was the adoption of new standard for assessing whether an area has additional capacity called the Policy Area Mobility Review (PAMR). Without going into the gory details, places with better public transit and less traffic will tend to pass this test which appears to measure the length of time it would take to make a trip either by transit or by car.

I couldn't help but notice that virtually all areas of the County would be deemed to have additional transportation capacity under the proposed standard. One wonders if the standard was selected independently of knowledge of its impact on growth policy. While Jim Humphrey questioned the new measure, I wonder if any problems with the standard relate more to the levels deemed acceptable rather than standard itself.

Panel Discussion
After this introductory presentation, Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson emceed a lively panel discussion on growth policy which even included "lightening rounds". (Maybe he can replace Bob Barker if this job gets too tough?) The panelists came from diverse backgrounds. Business interests were well represented. Georgette "Gigi" Godwin is President of the MoCo Chamber of Commerce. Chris Weber is the Director of Planning for Federal Realty, perhaps best known as the largest developer in downtown Bethesda. Bob Spalding is a project manager for homebuilder Miller and Smith. Ralph Bennett is the President of Bennett Frank McCarthy Architects, which designed both King Farm and Clarksburg Town Center. Leonard Bogorod is a real estate consultant with Robert Charles Lesser & Co.

Advocates of limits on growth or major changes in development policy in MoCo were also well represented on the panel. MoCo Sierra Club Vice Chair Pam Lindstrom and Neighbors for a Better Montgomery Executive Director Drew Powell were both on the panel. Jim Humphrey is Chair of the Planning and Land Use Committee for the Montgomery County Civic Federation and a longtime advocate of limits on growth. Amy Presley is President of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee and led the team that uncovered the violations of county laws which plagued that development.

Jim Soltesz is President of Loiederman Soltesz Associates, a major planning, engineering, and environmental services firm. Stuart Rochester is best known as a historian and author of Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, but has been involved in land use issues for two decades and lives in Burtonsville. The panel discussion was lively and interesting but ran over the expected time by about 30 minutes which was a pity because it began to feel repetitive in the last 20 minutes.

Pro-development advocates expressed feeling appalled at the idea that the County was reaching "build out" (i.e. that additional growth in the County should cease) and argued that growth adds revenue to the County which enables it to provide services. They (and Mr. Moritz) pointed out that growth was slowing down in percentage terms, a factoid made less compelling by the basic math fact that an increase of 100,000 people is a smaller percentage increase on a larger population base.

Panelists disagreed about the idea of greater density at Metro stations. Pam Lindstrom repeatedly mentioned that studies of growth in Arlington showed that greater density around Metro stations resulted in no increased traffic. However, another panelist stated that only around 20% of people who lived near Metro travelled by Metro.

Several panelists mentioned the need to take into account the environmental impact of growth, though there was naturally debate about whether this cost should be borne by additional fees placed on development. Bob Spalding argued that many of the increased fees which were already in the proposal would significantly raise costs to developers and translate into higher home prices, though I wondered if at least part of the cost would be absorbed by the developer as lower profit even if his point had some merit.

Chris Weber articulated the importance of providing incentives to encourage development where the County wants it to occur. I think this may have simply meant that the County should continue to build and maintain garages and support the Metro (and other similar public amenities) as in downtown Bethesda. At this point, I think it is safe to say that Federal Realty needs no further encouragement to develop its properties there as they are already chomping at the bit.

I should add that Mr. Weber was disarmingly honest, admitting that he was part of the transportation problem as he and his family live in Howard County and he commutes around 30 miles to his office in Montgomery every day. The "Chris Webers of the world" became a synonym for people with long commutes by the end of the meeting.

Someone else pointed out that the Kentlands and King Farm occurred within Rockville and Gaithersburg and that thinking should occur about how to encourage similar smart growth developments in unincorporated parts of the County. Anyone have any thoughts or comments on this point?

Community Input
The two most influential members of the audience were Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-4) and Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large). Marilyn Praisner took to the mike for a few minutes before the community got going. Both councilmembers spent a good deal of time at the meeting and talking with attendees.

Virtually all of the comments I heard during the portion of comments I was able to stay for seemed to ask for further tightening of capacity standards for growth. One woman asked how the Planning Department staff could view so many schools as having additional capacity with all of the portable classrooms around the County. Another vehemently argued that there was no more transportation capacity in East Silver Spring.

Your gentle blogger also stepped up to the mike. I called for eliminating the ability of developers to get around transportation capacity limits through the provision of various amenities that do nothing or almost nothing to mitigate traffic. The audience applauded when I said something along the lines of "a whimsical bench at a bus stop does not mitigate traffic."

I also argued that the ability to buy and sell air rights subverted the intent of the Master Plan. For example, if the developer of the Pier One property on Wisconsin Ave. successfully acquires the air rights of the nearby church, the developer will be able to construct a much taller building which will loom over adjoining neighborhood of single-family homes.

The increased height will make it harder to achieve the transition desired between the high-density commercial district and the single-family home residential area. It will also make it less likely that the design goal of having tall buildings near Metro but declining height as one gets away from the location of the stop. In short, I was trying to argue that builders should be able to construct buildings within the Plan that fit within the character of the area but should not be allowed to use these measures to build larger developments than originally envisioned in the Master Plan.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Controlling Growth MoCo Style

Montgomery County's Planning Board has begun considering new strategies for controlling growth. Taxes are definitely on the agenda:

In a wide-ranging discussion that will continue for several sessions, the board offered little comment about the proposals outlined by its staff in a report of more than 300 pages. But the call for higher taxes appears to mirror recent comments by Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, who told a County Council committee last week that drastic measures, such as a major increase in the gasoline tax, might be needed to have a real impact on traffic congestion.

Among the board staff's proposals are doubling taxes that builders pay to fund schools to $21,000 on a single-family detached home; nearly tripling taxes for transportation to $10,810 on a single-family detached home; and increasing the recordation tax on residential home sales from $6.90 to $10 per $1,000 of home value.
Montgomery is already well-known for having the highest transaction costs for acquiring a home of any county in the nation, though I imagine that the new taxes will help cover more of the costs associated with new development. Of course, the home recordation tax would impact not just the sale of new homes but old ones as well.

Some may also question whether the county needs to work to control growth when the County has just experienced its slowest population growth in years. On the other hand, they continue to build condos like gangbusters in Bethesda and I imagine that the builders expect someone to buy them, so they current slow in population growth may just be a lull.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

The much-debated Purple Line light rail won't go down Sligo Ave. in Silver Spring:

The state has eliminated one proposed route for the Bi-County Transitway that would go down Sligo Avenue in East Silver Spring, though other alignments in that neighborhood are still being considered that would feature tunnels.

. . .

Planners are still studying two proposed alignments in East Silver Spring, Madden said. One route would snake from the Silver Spring Transit Center down Bonifant and Ripley streets at grade to Wayne Avenue. Another would go down Thayer and Silver Spring avenues.

Both routes are designed to move the transit system from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Long Branch. Ultimately, the transitway will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

MTA is considering deep tunneling along part of the alignment down Silver Spring and Thayer avenues, Madden said.

‘‘Originally we thought it would have to be constructed by cut-and-cover,” he said. ‘‘Now, based on our analysis, we’re only considering deep tunneling.”

With cut-and-cover construction, MTA would have dug a trench for the transit system to run in, then covered it with a roof. It is usually considered less expensive than deep tunneling, but in this case, Madden said, the costs do not appear to be that different because the tunneled portion of the route would not be that long.

East Silver Spring residents support deep tunneling, Colvin said. ‘‘We would like to see deep tunneling completely under East Silver Spring.”

Residents do have some concerns about the two remaining proposed alignments — like how traffic will be affected, for instance — but support mass transit and are willing to find a mode that suits the neighborhood, Colvin said.

If deep tunneling is the way to go and viable in Silver Spring, why not consider it elsewhere?


On Political Pulse

Miranda Spivack, a reporter for the Washington Post who has written a series of interesting articles on issues arising from the current Montgomery County budget battles (and one today on apparent overtime abuses in certain parts of the County Government), will be on the Political Pulse TV Show on Thursday, May 3rd at 9 p.m. and Tuesday, May 8th at 9:30 p.m.

Political Pulse is on Channel 16 TV in Montgomery County.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Chevy Chase Election Results

The Town of Chevy Chase has just posted the election results. Incumbent Councilmembers Linna Barnes and Rob Enelow were reelected. Rob Enelow placed first with 345 votes followed by Linna Barnes with 309 votes. Scott Orbach fell short in his bid to return to the Council after his defeat last year with 161 votes. Six votes were cast for write-in candidates.

A total of 458 ballots were cast, including 110 absentee ballots. Only two ballots were spoiled. Interestingly, 97 people decided to bullet vote and cast a ballot for only one candidate based on the results. I suspect that most of the single-shot votes went to Scott as Linna and Rob were jointly endorsed by a couple of groups of town residents. However, one cannot really know if this is so without examining the ballots.

My interpretation of Rob and Linna's victory is that this is a resounding vote of support for the Town's new strategic plan and approach since the moratorium. The results should provide a major boost for several initiatives over the next year, including efforts to use the Town's new authority for the state to further regulate development and redevelopment as well as the expenditure of monies to assess the impact of the Purple Line. I think residents also supported the Town's efforts to promote an environmentally-friendly town as all candidates--an idea supported by all candidates.

It is also a validation of the effort to have a more inclusive and participatory process in running of the Town. All Town Councilmembers now spend a great deal of time working with committees composed of town residents. When Bill Hudnut was mayor, he worked hard to promote civility even as the Town discussed extremely contentious issues. I think Linna and Rob have worked hard to continue and build on this approach and voters supported that as well.

Congratulations to Linna and Rob. Thanks to Scott as well--elections matter a lot more when someone takes the time and effort to put themselves out there to provide voters with a real choice.


Chevy Chase Town Meeting

Yesterday was a busy day in the Town of Chevy Chase. We voted to elect two members of the Town Council--returns are still pending--and held the annual town meeting.

Kudos to Sue Hill and the other members of the town election committee along with the town staff for making sure that the elections ran like clockwork. Under their leadership, the Town extended election hours earlier in the morning. The elections were also widely advertised, including signs posted by the entrance to the Town reminding people to vote.

All four members of the District 18 state legislative delegation (Sen. Rich Madaleno, Dels. Jane Lawton, Ana Sol Gutierrez, and Jeff Waldstreicher) spoke at the Town meeting about the recent legislative session. Sen. Madaleno touted the major success of Del. Lawton, a former mayor of the Town, in sponsoring the major piece of environmental legislation which passed this year. Karen McManus came to represent Rep. Chris Van Hollen's office.

The chairs of the Town's five committees reported to the Town. Community Relations Committee Chair Monica Medina explained that her committee was recruiting block party captains to help organize block parties around the Town. Interested residents should contact Belinda Wilborn at the Town offices.

Environment Committee Chair Joan Rood outlined how her committee is working on ways to enhance the Town's tree canopy, including providing new incentives for planting new canopy trees. The Environment Committee is also seeing if the Town can participate in the County's proposed RainScape initiative through which the County would help residents figure out how to absorb more storm water on their property. Finally, the Committee is working on developing a Town noise ordinance since the County's ordinance is unenforced.

Land Use Committee Chair Julia Miller said that her committee has assisted a Town in hiring a company to figure out how to use the new authority that the state has granted it to regulate land use as well as the setback ordinance. Presumably, this means that the Town will consider taking a more aggressive approach toward regulating development and redevelopment in the Town once their company produces its report.

Long Range Planning Committee Chair Pat Burda reported on the many matters being followed by this committee, including the efforts by yours truly to track development in Bethesda, including the potential of projects at Woodmont Ave. and Bethesda Ave. to close both Woodmont Ave. and access to the tunnel under Wisconsin Ave. for long periods. The committee is also trying to get the 4-H center designated as legacy open space and buffer open space around the west edge of the Town. In addition to also monitoring Purple Line developments, the Committee is also considering potential changes to the governance structure of the Town.

Public Service Committee Chair Bill Pritchard rounded out the committee reports with his committee's efforts to improve public services, including efforts to get PEPCO to work to reduce the number of power outages in the Town.

Treasurer Lance Hoffman delivered a lightening fast report and extremely thorough report on the state of Town finances. The good news is that revenues from the Town's share of the state income tax are up dramatically over the past few years, enabling the Town to both improve services, run a surplus, and set aside money to purchase open space or for capital improvements. The amount of revenue collected from the property tax has remained stable due to consistent reductions in the property tax rate. The budget is available online and I think (and hope) that Lance plans to post the excellent graphs from his powerpoint there as well.

Mayor Linna Barnes then conducted a hearing on the proposed budget and the tax rate. Most discussion focused on the Town's potential expenditure of $250,000 to assess the impact of the proposed light-rail on the Town, or least examine the state study. Many people spoke on both sides of what turned out to be the issue of the day. John Barnes led off the discussion with a firm statement lauding the Council's approach on this and other issues, urging the Council to "get on with it."

I argued that it is appropriate to place a place marker in the budget for this expenditure. The new transportation would allow more development and density at both Chevy Chase Lake and Bethesda which could have an enormous impact on traffic on Connecticut Ave. and Wisconsin Ave. and the Town. At the same time, there is no ridership study indicating how many people the Purple Line light rail would carry and thus that this is a wise capital investment--a point brought home even more strongly by David Steeds.

Opponents politely pressed for a study which would represent all viewpoints, or argued that the study was unnecessary as the state plans to spend substantial amounts on its own study. Several proponents of the expenditure, including Pam Browning and Terry Banks argued passionately that the Town should fight to protect the existing trail as valuable and beautiful green space which would be destroyed by the light rail.

No doubt more will be heard at the hearing on the issue to be held at the Town Hall on June 6th. I hope the discussion is as civil as it was last night. While people testified on the budget last night, the budget will not be finalized by the Town Council until after the hearing.

After setting the town tax rate at 2.3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation (a rate that the people of Chevy Chase Village can only envy as their pay many multiples of that for their independent police force), Mayor Linna Barnes adjourned the meeting.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Vote Early, Vote Twice

If you live in the Town of Chevy Chase, don't forget to vote today. You can cast a ballot for two candidates for the Town Council until the polls close at 8PM at the Town Hall. The candidate statements can be read online; civic-minded citizens who haven't yet made up their minds can also read my earlier posts on the contest, here, here, and here. I plan to vote to reelect Linna Barnes and Rob Enelow. Residents can also attend the annual town meeting tonight at 8PM.

MPW will have precinct-by-precinct coverage of the election tomorrow (Chevy Chase has one precinct) as well as the town meeting unless CNN beats me to it.


Mike Miller Sui Generis

Senate President Mike Miller called for a special session to deal with the state's looming $1.5 billion budget deficit. (Anyone else noticed that deficits always "loom"?) He proposes upping the state sales tax from 5 to 6 percent, legalizing slot machines, and cutting education to balance the books.

However, the big news may be that Miller is now hedging on his announced plan to retire in 2010 after presiding over the Senate for more than two decades. No one will be surprised to learn that the savvy pol said that it his constituents who wanted him to run again. On the other hand, he explained constituent demands for more Miller in a way outside the usual formula:

"My concern is my district," said the gregarious Miller, who represents parts of Calvert and Prince George's counties. "They may say, 'He's a jerk, but he's our jerk.' "
Miller also had some harsh words for former Gov. Robert Ehrlich:
"He's the kind of person you wouldn't want in your law firm because he doesn't work," Miller said of Ehrlich, who recently joined a large North Carolina-based firm.
Oh, and Miller says Edwards is the most electable Democratic presidential candidate.

If Miller does retire, I hope the next Senate president is this much fun.