Sunday, September 29, 2013

Takoma Metro Development: The October Agenda

Takoma Metro site development is back on the public agenda in October... not that was ever off the community's. I'll explain what's up, under the headings October and Community Action below, but first a couple of sections of background for those who need a refresher:

The Plan

WMATA (Metro) and developer EYA propose a building with 200+ residential apartments, to be constructed primarily on the what is now paved surface parking at the Takoma Metro site. At its highest point -- based on a "concept plan" released over the summer -- the building would rise 5 stories above ground-level transit parking and amenity space. Given a grade that rises as you move from Eastern Avenue NW -- where the building would have 4 levels total -- toward the railroad tracks, the building would total 7 levels.

Much in the plan could change, and based on community reactions I've heard, most of us in the DC and Maryland Takoma community -- those who know about the developer's plan -- hope that much will change. A mandated public process will afford us opportunity to be heard. We have to make the most of the process, and beyond the process, to motivate the changes we would like to see, more on which below.

The Process

WMATA staff and EYA presented their plans in July, 2013 meetings to the WMATA board's real-estate committee, to a community meeting, and to the Takoma Park City Council. You can find their presentations online at dc-mdneighborsfortakomatransit.org, under the subheading Presentations from the July 16, 2013 community meeting. You can find conceptual design documents under the subheading Provided July 5, 2013 by Stan Wall, Director, Office of Real Estate and Station Planning, or refer to a blog item I posted on July 5. EYA Senior Vice President Jack Lester told me, in a September 24 conversation, that his company has not further developed plans. They are waiting for a WMATA board vote that would revive the now-expired Joint Development Agreement (JDA) that led to last decade's failed development initiative, which would have placed townhouses at the Takoma Metro site.

October


What's past is prologue. The next WMATA-EYA move is the JDA revival that Mr. Lester and his EYA colleagues are counting on. In October, look for:

  • October 10 -- WMATA -- Presentation of Takoma action, for a vote, to WMATA's Planning, Program Development & Real Estate (PPDRE) Committee.
  • October 14 -- Takoma Park City Council -- Work session (council & staff) discussion of Takoma Metro development.
  • Mid-October -- WMATA -- Completion of a WMATA-chartered Takoma traffic study.
  • October 21 -- Takoma Park City Council -- Council vote, with public comment, on a resolution commenting on Takoma Metro development.
  • October 24 -- WMATA -- Board vote on the Takoma Action (assuming affirmative PPDRE vote on October 10.
  • Late October (assuming Board October 24 approval) -- WMATA -- Advertise Compact Public Hearing and distribute review materials to the public.
On these topics, two notes:
  • WMATA real-estate director Stan Wall provided the WMATA dates above in a September 3 e-mail message, responding to questions I had sent him on behalf of myself and Washington DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B Commissioners Sara Green and Faith Wheeler. Mr. Wall also provided a map annotated with the intersections to be included in the Takoma traffic study.
  • Intersections included in WMATA's Takoma traffic study.
  • I have asked Mayor Bruce Williams to schedule an October 14 public hearing to precede the council work session.
Community Action

A small group of community members and I started working in late winter to prepare for the revival of the Takoma Metro development project, which we saw as inevitable. Our timing was fortunate; we learned soon after about WMATA steps. We joined forces with ANC Commissioners Green and Wheeler, leading to the June 7 community notice the commissioners and I posted and to a June 19 letter to WMATAAfter the July 16 community meeting, we expanded our organizing group. The discussion now extends to 20-some DC and Maryland community members, including representatives of Historic Takoma Inc. We hold a range of views and have worked to create consensus. We arrived at 3 key points, as follows.

The group supports transit-friendly development, which in the Takoma Metro site context is development that:
  • preserves the current green space as a park
  • enhances transit access, and
  • is neighborhood-friendly via appropriate set-back and size of the Eastern Avenue NW frontage, buffer separation from the next-door apartment building, and managed traffic impact.
The community group asks all Takoma stakeholders to endorse these principles. You can express your support by signing on electronically via the form at dc-mdneighborsfortakomatransit.org.

Takoma Park Action

Regardless of your opinion, if you are a Takoma Park Ward 1 (Hodges Heights, North Takoma, Philadelphia-Eastern Neighborhood, Victory Tower) resident or business owner or employee, I would like to hear what you think, both your thoughts on the development proposal and what you think the City of Takoma Park should do.

Best is to contact me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov. I will be away October 2 - 9, but outside those dates, you can reach me at 301-873-8225. The overall process, however, will be long.

Beyond October

October events will set the stage for further milestones:
  • The required WMATA compact public hearing, likely to be held in early winter.
  • A Washington DC Planned Unit Development (PUD) process, required because the developer would be seeking approval of variances -- very significant ones -- from building design allowed by zoning. Maryland residents and entities would not have standing to participate.
  • Review by the Washington DC Historic Preservation Review Board.
I will do my best to keep community members informed of developments. For now, please sign on to join the community advocacy effort, if its principles reflect your view, and do share your thoughts with me.

Thank you.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Environment presentation on the council agenda, plus a talk on organic lawncare

The September 23, 2013 city-council meeting will feature a presentation by contractor The Brendle Group, which the city tasked to develop a Sustainable Energy Action Plan and a greenhouse gas inventory.

This session is a follow-on to a July 29 public forum. Project background is online. In July, the Brendle group presented a number of high-return-on-investment steps, with reasonable financial cost, that the city could take to improve our community's environmental/energy profile. (Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of their presentation materials.) The Brendle Group had planned to refine their proposed strategy in response to July 29 public comments. 

I expect the city will move forward with selected environmental steps in the coming months and in enacting our FY15 budget, including hiring a Sustainability Coordinator, a step recommended by the city's former Task Force on Environmental Action.

Also of note on the environmental front --

The City of Takoma Park is hosting "Fall Lawn Renovations, Naturally: Everything You Need to Know for a Safe, Organic Landscape With Paul Tukey!" on Saturday, October 5th from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon at the Department of Public Works, 31 Oswego Avenue, off Ritchie Avenue.

About the speaker: Paul Tukey is a journalist, author, ternationally recognized for his expertise in environmental issues related to landscape management and water quality. Mr. Tukey is lauded for his ability to turn a mundane subject - lawn care - into a rousing public discourse. Currently, Mr. Tukey is Chief Sustainability Ocer for Glenstone, a museum in Potomac, Maryland, where he will help create a "living classroom" about organic landscaping.

This event is part of the city's Safe Grow Zone education campaign. Regarding Safe Grow implementation, check out a short interview with Washington Adventist Hospital's Director of Facilities, "Hospital Says no to Pesticides for Turf Management."

An excerpt from the transcript --
"Q: What have you determined is the alternative to using insecticides or herbicides for your lawns and landscapes?

"A: We are still in the discovery process. For insecticides, having beneficials such as ladybugs and praying mantis, keep the non-beneficial insects, such as aphids and lace bugs, in control, and make for a good integrated pest management program. If needed, optional environmentally friendly products may include Neem oil, other horticultural oils and soaps. For herbicides, we are still reviewing. In landscaped areas, maintenance by hand, weed mats and mulching should be effective. Turf is still under review -- alternatives may include overseeding to provide competition for the weeds, higher cut height, etc."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Please apply: Safe Roadways Committee, Arts and Humanities, Emergency Preparedness

The city council expects to appoint members to the city's Safe Roadways Committee (SRC) in early October. We have 7 applicants for up to 11 slots, so we'd welcome additional applicants.

The SRC task is "to advise the City Council on transportation-related issues including, but not limited to, pedestrian and bicycle facilities and safety, traffic issues, and transit services" and "to encourage Takoma Park residents to use alternatives to driving, including walking, bicycling, and transit." Committee members will decide meeting frequency with a minimum of quarterly meetings.

To apply, use the form at http://takomaparkmd.gov/bcc.

You'll see that there are openings on other committees. I'll call out in particular the Arts and Humanities Commission, which "promotes, coordinates and strengthens public programs to further cultural development," and the Emergency Preparedness Committee.

Please consider applying. Let me know if you have questions or send them to City Clerk Jessie Carpenter <jessiec@takomagov.org>.

Thanks,

Seth

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The War on Drugs in Maryland, and the Home Front (Part 1)

Many of us believe marijuana possession for personal use should be decriminalized -- some believe marijuana should be legal, regulated, and taxed -- but given current laws, the City of Takoma Park, my personal bailiwick, does not decide for itself. The federal government classifies marijuana as a banned "Schedule I" controlled substance. Takoma Park enforces federal and state laws, as it must, by making arrests, including for possession of small quantities of marijuana and of paraphernalia.

Our city is, regrettably, on the front lines of the ill-conceived War on Drugs.

Conviction for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and for related drug paraphernalia, has serious consequences. Conviction (or even just arrest) affects a person's ability to get a job or student loan, the ability to function fully in society. We note, not incidentally, that enforcement, arrest, conviction, and incarceration heavily and disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities, in Montgomery County and just about everywhere else in the U.S. Consequences for everyone arrested for possession may be life-long and life-altering far out of proportion to the gravity of the crime... which isn't even a crime according to certain states whose drug policies are more progressive than Maryland's.


Progressive Maryland?

There have been efforts to change our state's law. Most recently, Maryland Senators Bobby Zirkin's and Allan Kittleman's SB 297 would have reduced the maximum penalty for possession up to 10 grams of marijuana to a $100 civil fine. That level of possession is currently a criminal offense punishable by up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. The state senate passed the bill by a 30-16 vote, but it did not advance out of the House of Delegate's Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Delegate Joseph F. Vallario, Jr.. The vice chair is Kathleen M. Dumais, a member of the Montgomery County's house delegation.

Reportedly Senator Zirkin plans to try again in 2014, and I hope our District 20 representatives and the Montgomery County delegation will support his decriminalization bill and a bill in the House of Delegates. (I would also support legalization within a regulatory framework.)

The Home Front

I started writing this article in July after noting local arrest statistics, but held off posting in order to gather information and gain a more complete picture of the local situation. According to the Takoma Park Police Department's published crime reports, the city made at least thirteen arrests for possession of marijuana and/or drug paraphernalia in the three months to mid-July alone. (I write "at least" because Police Chief Alan Goldberg told me that the department may not have reported juvenile arrests. According to Chief Goldberg, there were 42 citations for possession of marijuana in the first six months of 2013, but many were coupled with charges for other crimes.) I will list the 12 report records that I found:

  1. Unit blk. of Darwin Ave., on Sunday, July 14th at 3:00 p.m., a male 24, was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia
  2. 1100 blk. of University Blvd., on Sunday, July 14th at 2:31 p.m., a male 49, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
  3. 7200 blk. of New Hampshire Ave., on Wednesday, July 10th at 10:24 a.m., a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
  4. 7400 blk. of New Hampshire Ave., on Monday, May 27th at 4:27 a.m., a male 39, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
  5. 1100 blk. of University Blvd., on Tuesday, May 21st at 9:47 pm, a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
  6. 1300 blk. of University Blvd., on Sunday, May 19th at 12:40 am, a male 41 and a female 27, were arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
  7. 6900 blk. of New Hampshire Ave., on Saturday, May 18th at 4:24 pm, a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
  8. 7700 blk. of Maple Ave., on Thursday, May 16th at 1:38 a.m., a female 21, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
  9. Intersection of New Hampshire Ave., and Larch Ave., on Wednesday, May 15th at 11:32 p.m., a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
  10. Intersection of Flower Ave. and Garland Ave., on Thursday, May 2nd at 2:00 pm, a male 30, was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia
  11. 1100 blk. of University Blvd., on Monday, April 29th at 6:30 pm, a male 42, was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia.
  12. 600 blk. of Boston Ave., on Friday, April 26th at 11:54 am, a male 18, was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
(I have not included records that additionally cite other offenses, records such as "6400 blk. of 5th Ave., on Wednesday, July 10th at 11:21 a.m., male 36, was arrested for possession of cocaine, drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana, and violation of protective order." And by the way, during that same period we have made at least seven arrests for "having an open alcoholic container in public" or "drinking alcohol in public," not associated with any other charges such as disorderly conduct or theft, but that's matter for a different article.)

The city has discussed a "deprioritization" policy on marijuana enforcement although there's nothing in writing in city code or police orders.

Could Takoma Park enact policy with teeth, a non-enforcement rule, regarding possession of small amounts of marijuana and of associated paraphernalia? No, simply. The city does have the policy that it will not assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws, but I do not believe that model could extend to marijuana possession.


Maryland Law, Racial Disparities, and Public Opinion

According to Maryland law, possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana, deemed for personal use, is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of 10-50 grams is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of paraphernalia is a misdemeanor carrying the same penalty. It is not uncommon for a prosecutor to drop a case if an arrested individual agrees to do community service. As reported in the Baltimore Sun, "The General Assembly changed the marijuana laws last year in an attempt to soften the blow of those arrests. In addition to lesser sentences for having less than 10 grams, a law that came into force Jan. 1 this year instructs police to charge possession by citation, which can be done on the street. The measure was designed to keep people out of jail before court dates." A lawyer-published page does a fair job of explaining the citation situation. It's only a matter of time before a bill like 2013's SB 297, or outright legalization, passes. In the mean time --

"Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates, according to new federal data," reports the New York Times, citing a recent ACLU study. According to the ACLU,

"The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. What’s more, it is carried out with staggering racial bias. Despite being a priority for police departments nationwide, the War on Marijuana has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our communities."
I don't know whether Takoma Park arrests show the same disparity -- Councilmember Terry Seamens has asked our police department for data -- but our city surely pays the same unjustified social and financial costs.

I hate our our participation in this whole mess, as do many, if not most, Takoma Park residents. It's a waste of money; it makes none of us safer. Knowing Takoma Park, it's likely that local opinion regarding legalization far exceeds bare-majority national support. According to study findings released by Pew Research on April 3, 2013,
"About half (52%) of adults today support legalizing the use of marijuana, up from 41% in 2010. Since then, support for legalization has increased among all demographic and political groups."
Takoma Park Options

A Takoma Park non-enforcement ordinance would be ill-advised. Maryland municipalities may not nullify provisions of the Maryland constitution and laws. Regardless, our police officers have sworn to uphold the state constitution and laws, and a court could overturn our law. It would be wasteful to enact an unconstitutional law and damaging to pursue a city law that would pit the council against the city administration.


Police have discretion in enforcement of laws. We recognize that officers legitimately apply judgment, in light of circumstances, drawing on their experience and management guidance, in their responses to the wide variety situations they encounter. Perhaps our police department could revise orders to allow for greater on-the-streets enforcement discretion, or to delineate don't-investigate/don't-enforce situations. But council imposition of such a directive would undercut police management's authority, and I will not pursue it.


Part 2?

I titled this article "Part 1." I expect to post a Part 2, describing steps toward a decrease in the number of Takoma Park citations and arrest, although not soon. I believe we will see progress, through work on a larger scale to assist allies outside our city borders, within the next couple of years.

A change in state law is the most promising answer, the best answer short of a change in federal policy. Should a responsive bill be introduced in the Maryland Senate or House of Delegates, I will join with my city-council colleagues (all of them, I'd hope) to support it. A state initiative could again be blocked in the 2014 legislative session, but 2014 is an election year, with a June primary and a November general election.


In 2015, in the first session of a new state legislature elected I would hope and expect we'll see progress, steps to decriminalized small quantities of marijuana (or legalize it) in Maryland.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Food Truck Update

I had a question from a constituent about the city's decision, now deferred, to arrange a food truck for the community center parking lot, near the library. In response, I provided a bit of history. Here it is --

The city started the food truck program Takoma Junction as a pilot. We funded the Old Takoma Business Association to run it. OTBA has done a great job, and the pilot was very successful. You can see OTBA's January 11, 2013 report to the council. The TPSS Co-op even reported higher Friday-evening sales, in the weeks after the program started, given patronage drawn by the nearby food trucks.

As an aside: It's typical that discussion and corrections are needed to get new programs right. It was the Takoma Junction Task Force (which I co-chaired), after conducting surveys and community meetings on ways to activate Takoma Junction as a community and business space, that recommended TJ food trucks. The 2009-11 council rejected the idea but then the current council moved ahead, although we did override staff's recommendation to locate the trucks at BY Morrison Park, near the entrance to Manor Circle, specifically because we were concerned about impact on neighboring residences and also low visibility.

The council discussed the pilot at its February 4, 2013 meeting, which included a staff presentation on the changes to city code that were eventually made. City Manager Brian Kenner recently explained, "The objectives of the food truck program are to support economic activity in Takoma Park and to enhance the vitality of the community." These are the objectives that the council and staff aimed to capture in city policy.

Updates to city code were made via 2 council votes, on June 3 and June 17. These changes have been welcomed by businesses such as Capital City Cheesecake, which has arranged for an on-site food-truck Thursday evenings in September, although they did have to cancel the initial, September 12 visit because of a weather-related issue.

After discussions with residents, the city manager notified us that the City will not move forward with the library-lot location for food truck vendors at this time. Brian says he wants to see how the vending site on the Maple Ave side of the community center works as well as some of the other locations first in order to gauge interest, traffic, etc. He may eventually come back to the library lot as a potential site, but that would be later.

I hope this background helps.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Dog park update, poet laureate, home repair funding & parking

There's lots of mundane stuff on the city council agenda for Monday evening, September 9, 2013, so I'll call out just 4 items:

1) The council will be reappointing Merrill Leffler as Takoma Park Poet Laureate, per nomination of the city's Arts and Humanities Commission. Congratulations and thanks to Merrill.

2) The council will vote on contracts for the city's FY14 Exterior Home Repair Program. We have $80,000 in this year's budget for exterior repairs, at no cost to the homeowner, for eligible households, with lower or moderate income, priority given to homeowners who are elderly, disabled, or a family with children. According to city staff, to date, 27 homeowners have applied for this year's program. Additional applications will be accepted until the funds have been fully committed. Please contact Linda Walker at 301-891-7222.

3) An agenda item will include a dog park update. We're Staff recommends moving ahead exploring a site nestled between the skate park at Takoma-Piney Branch Local Park, Heffner Park, which is reached from Oswego Avenue, and Takoma Park Middle School. There's a map in the background doc. According to the staff backgrounder,
"The Heffner Park site is underutilized, has parking available and is not immediately adjacent to homes. The site is overgrown with invasive plants and is fairly large (about two acres); there are steep slopes on the property. The site may be a good location for a dog park, but the exact nature of the topography is difficult to determine because of the overgrowth.
"A next step is to clear out the undergrowth and determine if the site would work for a dog park. City staff is exploring the use of goats to do an initial clearing, with follow up trim/cleaning by volunteers and City or contract crews. If the site is determined to be appropriate for a dog park, development estimates range from $40,000 to $400,000 based on ;the size, fencing choice, site work, type of ground cover, and amenities (such as a water source) that are desired."
4) The council will be voting on staff-requested technical revisions to the city's ordinance on parking meters. For residents, the points of interest aren't actually in the ordinance yet:

a) The city manager is looking into pay-by-phone for parking and into metered parking for the city-owned lot in Takoma Junction. Parking in the Takoma Junction lot is currently free but limited to 2 hours during weekdays. The TPSS Co-op leases parking spaces there.

b) I asked the city-manager to look into pay stations for parking. They're used in many cities: You pay at a box and get a slip to put in your car. They boxes accept both coins and credit/debit cards. The Takoma Junction lot would be a good place for a pay-station trial.

c) I also suggested raising the rate we charge for street parking from $.75/hour to $1.00/hour, which matches the rate in Silver Spring. (The rate for street parking in downtown Bethesda is $2/hour.) According to city staff, the city currently takes in $70,000/year for parking and assesses $180,000/year in fines, a sum that includes residential-parking violations. A couple of my council colleagues opposed an increase in the metered-parking rate, characterizing it as "nickel-and-diming" residents. That's true literally but nonetheless, I think an increase is completely reasonable. A higher rate will come closer to paying the cost of providing parking to users, and $.25/hour isn't going to harm anyone.

Please let me know if you have questions or concerns.