Thursday, June 28, 2012

Montgomery County Commercial Kitchen Legislation Passes!

I'm pleased that the Montgomery County Council has passed, unanimously, a zoning text amendment (ZTA) that will allow churches that are located in residential zones to operate commercial kitchens. Community CKs hold promise as a source of economic opportunity for small, start-up businesses and as a link in the provision of fresh, local food in the community. (CKs will be regulated and inspected by the county health department. An institution wishing to operate a CK will need to submit a parking plan.)

Congratulations to the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church (TPPC), which is behind the community CK initiative, and to Pastor Mark Greiner! And thank you to George Leventhal for introducing the bill and seeing it through to approval and to Valerie Ervin for cosponsoring. Thanks also to at-large Councilmembers Nancy Floreen, Hans Riemer, and Marc Elrich for their support of the bill, and of course to the rest of the county council, which voted 9-0 in favor of the ZTA.

A side note: County legislative attorney Jeff Zyontz explored, at George Leventhal's request, community member David Reiser's suggestion that public notice and comment on the proposed parking plan be required. The county administration could not accommodate this requirement, however.

I have supported efforts by Councilmember Leventhal and by community-kitchen advocates -- Pastor Greiner and TPPC's kitchen committee; Michele Levy, executive director of the Crossroads Community Food Network; community activists Lorig Charkoudian and Tebabu Assefa; and others -- to pass the zoning change while addressing neighborhood concerns. I am very confident that TPPC will minimize impact while maximizing community benefits of the kitchen it plans.

TPPC plans to host start-up businesses with a focus on fresh, local foods, and to provide training in commercial food preparation. These are the sort of community benefits that, I'm sure, won over Marc Elrich and other councilmembers. The church does have a significant planning, fund-raising, and build-out task ahead of it. You'll be hearing more from the church in the next few days. I'm looking forward to hearing more, myself, and to helping however I can. Please do let me know if you'd like to be involved.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Taxation Without Recreation

Montgomery County designates a portion of real-property taxes, paid by Takoma Park and other county property owners, for recreation.

"This tax is levied to defray a portion of the costs of providing, maintaining, and managing recreation facilities and programs throughout the County, with the exception of Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Washington Grove, which have their own separate tax levies for this purpose." (Montgomery County Tax FAQ)
Yet Montgomery County doesn't operate rec facilities or programming in Takoma Park, and provides only a relatively small amount of funding for city operation of the New Hampshire Avenue recreation center, a county-owned facility. There is no Montgomery County tax-duplication rebate for recreation.

Taxation Without Recreation? Yes, but fortunately a simple change to county code would fix the operating imbalance, accompanied by county commitment to modernize or rebuild the NH Ave facility, given the amount Takoma Park has paid in rec tax over the years. And perhaps this change can serve as a template for more-comprehensive steps to address the broader tax-duplication challenge.

Read on for --

The Gory Details

The Montgomery County Recreational Tax rate is $.018 per $100 taxable-assessed value for the 2011 levy year (July 1, 2011-June 30, 2012), as documented in a county real-property tax schedule document.

Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Washington Grove residents do not pay the county Rec Tax because their cities provide the rec services they receive, just as Takoma Park provides rec services for its residents (and non-city residents who attend county schools here in Takoma Park!).

The owner of a property with a taxable assessment of $500,000 will pay $90 in Montgomery County Rec Tax per year: Not a lot, but compute for the whole of Takoma Park. I estimate that Takoma Park property owners will have paid over $350,000 in Rec Tax to the county for the year ending June 30, 2012 -- $351,704.38 is the exact estimate -- given a whole-city, fiscal-year 2012 (FY12) taxable base of $1,953,913,245.

Yet the city received only $79,670 in county rec funding in FY12, to run the New Hampshire Avenue rec center, a facility owned by the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) and operated by the city on subcontract to the Montgomery County Recreation Department. This figure was reduced, unilaterally by the county, from $125,000 in FY10 and prior years.

Do note that the NH rec center facility is old and shows its age. Montgomery County will need to renovate or replace the facility in the not-too-distant future. I hope the county will live up to that responsibility. Takoma Park property owners have paid enough in Rec taxes and other taxes, over the years, to justify the expenditure!

Tax Code

How is all this set up? The Recreation District is established under Section 41-5 of the County Code, while the Recreation District special tax is established in Section 41-2.

Sec. 41-2. Applicability and intent of chapter.

Except as otherwise provided herein, the provisions of this chapter shall be applicable throughout the county and within the recreation district, it being the intent hereof that limited recreational services may be provided hereunder throughout the county, the cost thereof to be defrayed from county-wide revenues, and that more complete recreational services may be provided hereunder in the recreation district, the cost of the latter to be defrayed from special taxes levied in the district. The department of recreation shall perform its functions both county-wide and within the recreation district, within the limitations of the funds appropriated for each area. Ordinances, rules and regulations adopted by the council hereunder may apply throughout the county or be confined to the recreation district, as the council shall designate. (Mont. Co. Code 1965, § 2-78; 1968 L.M.C., ch. 5, § 3.)

Sec. 41-5. "Recreation district" established.

There is hereby established a special taxing area, to be known as the "recreation district," the boundaries of which shall include all of the county with the exception only of that area now or hereafter included within the incorporated boundaries of the City of Rockville, the City of Gaithersburg and the Town of Washington Grove. (Mont. Co. Code 1965, § 2-77.)

What To Do

The simplest approach is to ask the county to exempt Takoma Park property owners from the Rec Tax on their Takoma Park properties, same as Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Washington Grove have exemptions. The county council would pass legislation to include the City of Takoma Park in code Section 41-5, and the county would commit to either renovating or replacing the New Hampshire Avenue recreation center, or funding the City of Takoma Park's undertaking the work, in the county's capital budget.

I endorse this approach over an increase in the Montgomery County tax-duplication rebate, paid annually to the City of Takoma Park. An exemption would follow the Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Washington Grove precedent. It would handily take care of the recreation piece of the tax-duplication puzzle and reduce Takoma Park property owners' tax burden, providing net savings even were the city to raise taxes to cover the relatively small county payments lost. The city could even expand its own rec programming. Earlier this year, Recreation Department Director Greg Clark presented, to the city council, a list of new and expanded initiatives that he would like to undertake. As a council member, I would love to have the headroom, afforded by reduced county taxes, to raise revenue to support these programs.

Can we be confident this approach would work? I think so, based on --

The Gaithersburg Situation

I asked Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz --

Do Gaithersburg residents pay higher fees than other county residents to use county rec facilities? Are there other repercussions or downside to Gaithersburg properties not being subject to the county Rec tax?

Here's his October 21, 2011 reply (I've been researching this issue for a while) --

City residents do not pay additional fees to utilize County facilities, though it is likely they would when utilizing other municipal sites. Our residents do pay for a very strong program of City fields, classes, leagues, pools, etc., which we budget out of our general fund revenue. Other than the County's specialized venues, such as golf courses and the larger indoor aquatic centers, which are fee-for-use in any event, we meet the great majority of our residents' recreational needs with our own programs. Overall, we feel our recreational programs meet or exceed County offerings.

A Comprehensive Solution

The City of Takoma Park would like to find a comprehensive solution to the overall tax-duplication challenge, one that would be agreeable to Montgomery County. We've been working on it for years. Myself, I was on the city's Tax and Services Duplication Issues (TASDI) committee in 2004-5, and have pursued the issue in various ways since. So have Mayor Bruce Williams, my city council colleagues, and City Manager Barb Matthews, who served on a county-municipality Municipal Revenue Sharing Task Force whose report is complete and pending release by County Executive Ike Leggett. The county council's Government Operations and Fiscal Policy (GOFP or GO) committee has tentatively scheduled a July 16 briefing on the report. GO members include District 5's Councilmember Valerie Ervin and at-large Councilmember Hans Riemer, both of whom represent Takoma Park. Nancy Navarro (District 4) chairs the committee.

A comprehensive solution may involve bringing county tax-duplication payments and rebates to higher, fairer levels, reflecting the actual cost to municipalities, such as Takoma Park, of providing services that the county does not deliver, despite taxing for them. It may extend payments and rebates to services and facilities paid for by other than property taxes. It may involve exemption from certain county taxes of property owners and residents in municipalities -- the solution I'm suggesting for the county Rec Tax. Whatever approach we take, the need and the desire are clear, for an adequate and fair solution, and I hope that the county council and executive will agree.

As always, I would really value hearing your thoughts on city issues and approaches. Should Takoma Park seek exemption from the Montgomery County Recreational Tax? Please do get in touch, by e-mail to sethg@takomagov.org or by phone, 301-873-8225.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Route 410: Going Somewhere?

I have found no issue more difficult than State Route 410 (a.k.a. Philadelphia Avenue and Ethan Allen Avenue in Takoma Park) in the course of my 7-month tenure on the Takoma Park City Council. The roadway is a state highway. The State Highway Administration, according to Maryland code, is responsible for maintenance, yet the SHA has not done much needed repairs in recent years. Due to recently-discovered ownership questions, the SHA is asking a "perpetual maintenance easement" from the City of Takoma Park. A memorandum of understanding would lay out additional conditions. I and others have raised concerns in open and closed council sessions -- here's my last recap, posted May 13 -- but I am not satisfied that the city is positioned to make the best deal with the SHA that we can.

All this said, the SHA has been responsive on immediate safety needs, and the city council has approved near-term, patch repairs for a degraded section of the roadway.

This note will be a resumé to date: the good and the not-yet good. I'll cover the MOU points first, then go on to a couple of positive points.

The MOU, as Neil Pedersen Would Have It (?)

I believe that the city could still negotiate more effectively with the state by reminding the SHA of commitments it has made.

The city and the SHA have been talking for a couple of years. Through the good offices of Del. Heather Mizeur, then-SHA Administrator Neil Pedersen visited Takoma Park for a November 8, 2010 public hearing. The outcome was that Mr. Pedersen proposed a resolution of the issue, captured in his April 21, 2011 letter to the city.

(Mr. Pedersen's letter talks of a "prescriptive easement," but the parties, the city and the SHA, later determined that a "perpetual maintenance easement" would be in the parties better interests. In any case, the nature of the easement seems independent (legally separable) from the rest of the SHA proposal captured in Mr. Pedersen's letter.)

Working from Mr. Pedersen's letter and from the January 31, 2012 draft MOU, posted publicly by the city as part of the February 21 city-council meeting packet, I would have proposed the MOU language that follows. The process hasn't allowed me to do that to date, so I'll create the opportunity now, working from public materials, drawing language directly from Mr. Pedersen's April 21, 2011 letter. Mr. Pedersen's proposal applies to sections IV to VII of the MOU, January 31 version. Relying on Neil Pedersen's letter --

IV UTILITY PERMITS

a. In order to assure that the pavement is consistently maintained along the entire MD 410 corridor through the City, SHA will be responsible for any and all permits issued along the corridor, but would partner with the City in the process as follows:

  1. SHA would send all permit requests to the City for its concurrent review of the proposed work;
  2. SHA would address the City's comments before issuing a permit;
  3. SHA would send the City a copy of a final permit;
  4. SHA would allow the City to have its own inspector present, along with SHA personnel;
  5. SHA would allow the City to perform its own quality review and share with SHA;
  6. SHA would allow the City to have an inspector present at any final inspection that was performed;
  7. SHA would take any and all reasonable measures to address the City's concerns before releasing a permit;
  8. The City would continue to acquire permits from SHA for any work that would affect the pavement or roadway function.

b. The permit application and supporting documents, including drawings as well as the approved permit, when it becomes available, will be delivered to: City Engineer, Ali Khalilian, 31 Oswego Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910; alik@takomagov.org; (301) 891-7620, or his successor.

V. SIGNALIZATION

a. SHA would work jointly with the City on signal issues.

b. The SHA contact in charge of communications regarding signalization in and around the vicinity of the MD 410 Easement Area is <...>, Assistant District Engineer, SHA District 3 Traffic, <...>.

VI. SIGNS

a. SHA would work jointly with the City on signage.

b. The SHA contact in charge of communications regarding signage in and around the vicinity of the MD 410 Easement Area is <...>, Assistant District Engineer, SHA District 3 Traffic, <...>, or his successor.

VII. PAVEMENT MARKINGS AND PEDESTRIAN CROSSWALKS

a. SHA would work jointly with the City on pavement markings and pedestrian crosswalks.

b. The SHA contact in charge of communications regarding pedestrian crosswalks in and around the vicinity of the MD 410 Easement Area is <...>, Assistant District Engineer, SHA District 3 Traffic, <...>.

Can we, the city and the SHA, still create an MOU as former Administrator Neil Pedersen would have it? We'll see.

Promoting Safety

As I reported on May 13, the SHA agreed to assess safety measures at the Holly & Philadelphia (SR 410) intersection. I subsequently requested that the SHA also look at the crossing at Cedar Avenue. SHA team leader Maria Bhatti graciously agreed to meet with residents, a meeting held Wednesday evening June 6 and attended by Police Chief Ronald Ricucci and Public Works Director Daryl Braithwaite. Ms Bhatti agreed to look into additional signage and pavement markings for the stretch between Piney Branch Road and Carroll Avenue and to address signal-visibility problems at Maple Avenue. The city will work with the utility companies regarding wires that obscure the signals at Maple. The possibility of flashing red lights, to supplement the Stop signs at Holly and Philadelphia, is still open.

I'll post a complete meeting summary once Ms Bhatti has reviewed the notes.

The Fix Is (?) In

Given that, it appears, an agreement regarding Route 410 with the SHA will not be reached for some time, and it could take up to 3 months for the SHA to resurface Philadelphia (Park to Carroll) and Ethan Allen, the city council agreed to authorize City Manager Barb Matthews to do temporary patch repairs on Philadelphia, to fix the pavement and address vibration problem. Ms Matthews said that she has unspent FY12 funds available although a window of only a few weeks remain for the funds to be spent (or perhaps simply committed). These patch repairs should temporarily address the poor state of the pavement in a variety of locations and the vibrations, felt in a number of homes, when large vehicles hit the poor pavement. Of course, I'll aim to keep residents informed about this work.

As always, please do let me know if you have questions or concerns.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

29 Holt Place fire investigation, and an update on 36 Philadelphia Ave

The following is an update on two properties in Takoma Park's Ward 1 --

Walt Rave's house, 29 Holt Place

I contacted the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service investigator, Lt. Daniel Maxwell, looking into the house fire at 29 Holt Place that claimed Walt Rave's life back in December. I'll paraphrase what he told me --

Maxwell said that the cause of the fire remains undetermined, that there were many potential ignitables on the porch and investigators haven't been able to narrow down the cause yet. At this point, status is "undertermined accidental." It does look less likely that the pick-up truck was involved in the fire. [The January 2012 NHTSA report does list the vehicle as the source of the fire, based on MCFRS's belief at that time.]

Maxwell is a crime investigator, and he says there is no evidence of arson.

The MCFRS case is open but inactive, pending further work by the insurance company, which is "probably" working in the background, conducting tests. Insurance investigations can take a long time, possibly years, if there are legal questions regarding pay-out.

36 Philadelphia Avenue

The city is moving toward demolition of the abandoned, deteriorating house at 36 Philadelphia Avenue.

The city had commissioned a "structural condition assessment." The contracted structural-engineering firm, Tadjer-Cohen-Edelson Associates, "observed" the property on December 9, 2011 and March 30, 2012. According to TCE's report --

"Structural analysis of the observations reveals that the house is structurally unstable and could collapese without warning. Attempts at repair would likely result in collapse of the house. It is therefore unsafe to attempt repair and thus [the house] cannot be restored."

The city filed an application for a required Historic Area Work Permit (HAWP), with the Department of Permitting Services (DPS), on June 6 with a copy given to the County's Planning staff the following day.

Historic Takoma (HTI) VP Lorraine Pearsall tells me that HTI will accept demolition.

Sara Daines says, "We are currently awaiting the assignment of a building permit number by DPS. Assuming a permit number is assigned soon, tentative plans are for the request to go before the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) on June 27 at 7:30 p.m." Owners of neighboring properties are supposed to receiving hearing notices from the HPC. Concerned parties may submit comment to the HPC and/or attend the hearing.

Please let me know if you have questions or concerns that I could address.