Friday, November 27, 2009

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

By Marc Korman.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, unless you live in Bethesda where the Christmas decorations went up before Halloween. But not everyone in the County wants Christmas to start so early, despite what seemed like political consensus a year ago.

About a year ago, a little known law was thrust into the public eye when the County began to enforce a provision of the zoning ordinance which limits Christmas tree sales to December 5th through 25th. The law affects Christmas tree sales on lots in several residential, commercial, rural, and mixed use zones. The lot at the center of the storm was the North Bethesda United Methodist Church, though others were also affected and forced to shut down for a time.

Seeking to avoid being the County Executive who stole Christmas, Leggett announced that the law would not be enforced and allowed sales to resume before December 5th. He then introduced ZTA 8-18, which would eliminate the date restrictions in every zone Christmas tree sales are permitted. The Planning Board unanimously voted to support the amendment back in February, but so far the amendment has not passed the County Council.

One of the reasons is Chevy Chase West, a community of approximately 500 homes south of Bradley Boulevard and north of the Town of Somerset along Wisconsin Avenue. That stretch has been, annually, home to two commercial Christmas tree lots within one block of each other along Wisconsin Avenue. Although the law has not been changed, at least one lot is planning to open in late November before the current law allows. According to Chevy Chase West, the lots create traffic back-ups, noise and light pollution, and a potential safety hazard not just for them, but to the many others who drive through that stretch of Wisconsin on their way to DC.

Based on my conversations with people in Chevy Chase West, they are pretty realistic that a ban on Christmas tree sales on residential lots is unlikely. If there is going to be an amendment, they would like increased regulation and firmer rules. For example, Chevy Chase West would like to see sales limited to 10am to 8pm daily, a ban on open fires, and clear standards for signage and traffic management. At a minimum, they want the current dates maintained and enforced.

Chevy Chase West has made some reasonable requests and in doing so have shown a willingness to compromise. County government should do the same.

First, the County Executive should either work with the County Council for the amendment before the holidays, unlikely given the Council’s busy agenda, or enforce the law on the books. That does not mean County police need to go looking for Christmas tree lots, but if there is a complaint they should respond to it accordingly.

Second, the County Executive should consider what some appropriate compromises might be. Councilmembers have already suggested that removing any date restrictions could be going too far. Councilman Elrich suggested sales could begin the Friday after Thanksgiving. Councilman Berliner thought differentiating between for profit and non-profits would be a good idea. At the least, some meat should be put on the bones of the law so that the regulations Christmas tree lot operators have to follow are clearly spelled out and take communities like Chevy Chase West into consideration.

The general consensus last year seemed to be that this was an outdated law that should be repealed. That is an understandable first response, but it turns out the law has its supporters and its reasons.