Friday, December 11, 2015

The TP-SS School Capacity Crunch (and the Piney Branch Pool)

Takoma Park-Silver Spring is experiencing a school space crunch. Public schools are overcrowded and the problem is getting worse. The school system is taking steps to add capacity, particularly at the elementary level. But where and how? These are open questions. Should Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) open a new school in our end of the county, or perhaps add classrooms at schools that include Piney Branch Elementary School (PBES) in Takoma Park? The answer -- the approach taken -- will have repercussions for decades to come. And as an aside, the decision will determine the fate of the widely-used PBES swimming pool.

School space is a capital cost so proposed overcrowding remedies are covered in the FY17 capital budget and 2017–2022 Capital Improvements Program. (The county's and schools' FY17 fiscal year starts July 1, 2016.) You can find the Board of Education's FY17 capital requests online. In that document, the BOE asks funding for additions at East Silver Spring, Montgomery Knolls, Pine Crest, Piney Branch, and Woodlin elementary schools to relieve the overutilization of several elementary schools in the lower portion of MCPS's Downcounty Consortium.

"Overutilization" is an artful word, isn't it? It hints that school families are to blame for the capacity issue. Regardless, MCPS officials are on our side. Note a memorandum included in the BOE capital request doc, starting on page 16, that directs,
"That a feasibility study be conducted to explore the possibility of opening an elementary school on the former Parkside Elementary School site, or another nearby former elementary school site, to relieve over-capacity at nearby schools."
The former Parkside Elementary School in Silver Spring
The Parkside school building is currently used as a Montgomery Parks headquarters. Reopening Parkside is a creative solution, originated by BOE Member Jill Ortman-Fouse, a welcome alternative to Interim Superintendent Larry A. Bowers' proposed approach.

This is where the Piney Branch ES pool connection comes into play. The superintendent's proposed PBES classroom expansion, dealing with a projected PBES deficit of 129 seats by 2021-2, would entail eliminating the pool. In particular, the superintendent says "A feasibility study will need to be conducted to explore razing the existing pool to construct an addition in the future. With the smallest site of any school in the county, at 1.9 acres, there is no room on the Piney Branch Elementary School site to accommodate relocatable classrooms."

Last summer’s rally to save the PBES pool.
(Photo by Bill Brown)
While County Councilmember George Leventhal and Board of Education Member Chris Barclay have asked MCPS to study building new PBES classroom space above the pool, keeping the pool open in the expanded school building, frankly that could be an awkward arrangement and there's no assurance MCPS could make it work. By contrast, if MCPS rehabilitates the Parkside building as a school, there will be less pressure to expand other consortium schools such as PBES. Again, reopening Parkside is a creative solution, a welcome alternative to the superintendent's proposed approach.

A Capital Improvements Program request transmittal letter, addressed to the county executive and council president and signed by Board of Education President Patricia B. O'Neill, acknowledges the system-wide need:
"For the 2015-2016 school year, MCPS is experiencing its eighth straight year of significant enrollment growth. Official September 30, 2015, enrollment is 156,674 students for a one-year increase of more than 2,800 students. Since the 2007-2008 school year, enrollment has increased by 18,929 students with most of the increase at the elementary school level."
And it describes the alternative BOE approach, requesting CIP inclusion of $100,000, "to conduct a feasibility study to explore an elementary school reopening on the former Parkside Elementary School site or another nearby former elementary school site," to relieve overcrowding, the alternative that would focus construction on one site rather than many and, as an aside allow the PBES pool to continue operating.

Support from County Executive Ike Leggett and from the Council will be critical. MCPS proposes annual capital and operating budgets, but it's the Montgomery County Council that has final say (subject to a state-imposed "maintenance of effort" constraint that the county fund the same dollar amount per pupil as the prior year).

The county officials' decisions are important. Schools are practically the only local institutions that draw and intermix individuals from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. Only public libraries and sports leagues have similar potential, but our communities' children spend far more time at school than they do anywhere else other than at home. Facility, boundary, and catchment area choices shape our communities.

Want to weigh in? The Board of Education will hold public budget hearings, on the capital and operating budgets, on January 7 and 14, 2016. Sign up to testify, starting December 14. And you'll be able to testify at county council public hearings in the spring.

Before then, attend or watch the Takoma Park City Council's December 14, 2015 meeting. The council is slated to have an MCPS presentation, followed by a worksession discussion -- an Overview of Montgomery County Public School Capacity -- at 8:05 pm. I hope and expect the council will take up a resolution, at a later meeting, providing city comment on MCPS facilities plans. Public comment is at 7:30 pm. Do communicate your view to the city council.

Finally, regarding the MCPS operating budget: A good place to come up to speed is MCPS's new Budget 101 Web site, which aims to answer many of the questions that parents, students, staff, and community members have asked about the MCPS Operating Budget, according to Interim Superintendent Bowers. The superintendent has proposed $2.45 billion FY17 operating budget, online on the MCPS Web site.

There is no better social investment than adequate school funding, well placed, if your goals are to provide social and economic opportunity to all segments of our population, to immigrants and established residents, whether well-off or struggling, regardless of cultural background. Facilities choices should be linked to a broad set of community needs. One such choice is at hand, the approach we'll take to adding downcounty school capacity. The right choice is to explore the Parkside option by funding the BOE requested feasibility study.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

End Maryland preemption of local firearms regulation

Below is a letter I sent to Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegates Sheila Hixson, David Moon, and Will Smith, who represent District 20 in the Maryland General Assembly --


To: Sheila Hixson <sheila.hixson@house.state.md.us>, Jamie Raskin <jamie.raskin@senate.state.md.us>, David Moon <david.moon@house.state.md.us>, Will Smith <will.smith@house.state.md.us>
Subject: End Maryland preemption of local firearms regulation

Hello Sheila, Jamie, Will, and David,

        I'm sure Takoma Park, Montgomery County, and many other Maryland cities and counties would like to take concrete steps to address our country's gun-violence epidemic, locally. But cities and counties can't act because Maryland code preempts localities from passing gun laws (Md. PUBLIC SAFETY Code Ann. § 5-104; full text below). How about initiating steps to change that bit of state law, to allow cities and counties to enact regulations that are more restrictive than the state's?

        I'll note that Maryland state laws that restrict certain firearms categories have been upheld in court this year, and just this week the Supreme Court declined to take up the ruling of a federal appeals court in Chicago, which upheld a City of Highland Park 2013 ban on semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. These facts suggest to me that key arguments against a Maryland state law change won't wash. The court rulings establish that localities may regulate firearms and that Maryland may enact laws more restrictive in regulating weapons than federal laws.

        I'd welcome working with you to address the very important issue of gun violence. Please do let me know your reactions to my request.

        Thanks and best wishes,

                                        Seth, 301-873-8225

§ 5-104. Preemption by State

   This subtitle supersedes any restriction that a local jurisdiction in the State imposes on a sale of a regulated firearm, and the State preempts the right of any local jurisdiction to regulate the sale of a regulated firearm.


Atlantic Guns, Rockville, Maryland

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Share the Vote: Montgomery County Board of Education Elections

Delegate David Moon (D-20) is the primary sponsor of proposed 2016 Maryland legislation that would enable Montgomery County to enroll new voters in county Board of Education (BOE) races.

I'm for it! There are strong, legitimate, and compelling reasons that non-citizens, and perhaps also 16 and 17 year olds, should be allowed to vote in local races that concern them -- BOE races per David's MC 25-16 bill draft, and perhaps also elections for Montgomery County Council and Executive.

The Montgomery County state legislative delegation held a hearing Monday evening, November 30, on a variety of county bills, MC 25-16 among them. At David's suggestion, I testified at the hearing, as did Takoma Park City Manager Suzanne Ludlow, relaying the city's favorable position, and a number of others. Of course Takoma Park supports this latest instance of the inclusive politics! As I note in my testimony, below, we have had non-citizen voting since 1992, and further expanded the franchise in 2013, to 16 and 17 year olds and on-probation and on-parole felons.

The case, then, for bill MC 25-16 --


I favor bill MC 25–16, enabling legislation that would allow the Montgomery County Council to establish voter qualifications specific to Montgomery County Board of Education races. This right is a limited form of the same right that Maryland municipalities have enjoyed for many years, to establish voter qualifications for their own elections. 

The City of Takoma Park exercised this right in 1992, allowing non-citizens to vote in city elections, after a 1991 Share the Vote campaign led to a favorable referendum vote. 

In Takoma Park, non-citizen voting works. The city clerk maintains a local registration database, separate from the state voter rolls. Election judges are easily able to handle the two classes of voters, state-registered and city-registered.

Takoma Park further expanded the electoral franchise in 2013, when Councilmember Tim Male and I, then a city council representative, introduced successful legislation to extend the vote in city elections to 16 and 17 year olds and to on-probation and on-parole felons and to establish same-day registration and voting during early voting and on election day. 

In Takoma Park’s 2015 city election, we had 105 registered 16/17 year olds, 47 of whom voted, a 44.8% rate. We had 523 registered non-citizens, of whom 71 voted. 

I don’t believe that, in 23 years of non-citizen voting, anyone has ever been deported for voting in Takoma Park or been denied naturalization. 

The city also uses instant run-off voting, instituted in 2006 after a referendum, and a referendum this year directed the council to move city elections to even years, to coincide with county, state, and national November general elections, if the city’s distinctive voter qualification rules can be maintained. We are optimistic that the city will work out a mechanism to support the different classes of voters.

In 2012, Maryland Delegate Patrick L. McDonough tried to strip cities of the ability to allow non-citizen voting. His legislation failed. As Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal said that year, in opposing the delegate’s bill, “A foreigner might have a different foreign policy interest, but when you are talking about choosing a mayor or a city council member, your interests are equal to your neighbor’s.”

The same thought applies to local Board of Education races. Montgomery County non-citizens send their children to public schools and pay taxes that educate others’ children. Their interests, in the BOE races, are equal to their citizen neighbors’. They deserve a vote.

MC 25-16 is about inclusion of an underrepresented, interested segment of Montgomery County’s population. It’s about engagement, about creating a sense of community belonging for recent immigrants. There are few downsides. Please endorse and support MC 25-16.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

PBES expansion in MCPS document on downcounty elementary schools

A heads-up for local parents and PBES pool users --

(TPSS Voice photo)
Montgomery County Public Schools has posted the interim superintendent's recommendations for addressing elementary school overcrowding in our corner of the county. They include (page 9):
"Request FY 2017 facility planning funds for a feasibility study to explore the feasibility, scope, and cost of an addition at Piney Branch Elementary School with a completion date of August 2022."
The motivation is that PBES is projected to have a deficit of 129 seats by 2021-2. Text includes (page 8):
"A feasibility study will need to be conducted to explore razing the existing pool to construct an addition in the future. With the smallest site of any school in the county, at 1.9 acres, there is no room in the Piney Branch Elementary School site to accommodate relocatable classrooms."
The doc is the Interim Superintendent's Recommendation to Address Elementary School Overutilization in the Lower Portion of the Downcounty Consortium." It covers elementary schools that include Takoma Park ES, Piney Branch ES, and Rolling Terrace ES.

It's posted to the MCPS Capital Improvements Program/ Master Plan Web page.

Regarding PBES --

Not reflected in the recommendations doc is that Councilmember George Leventhal and Board of Education Member Chris Barclay have asked MCPS to study building new PBES classroom space *above* the pool, keeping the pool open in the expanded school building.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Medical marijuana dispensary proposed for Takoma Junction

Park Avenue residents Tara and Chad Blaise have proposed opening a medical marijuana dispensary on Carroll Avenue in the Takoma Junction area. This initiative has prompted a city council discussion, this evening, whether the city wishes to provide guidance on locations where a dispensary would be appropriate to operate in Takoma Park, per the council backgrounder.

The council materials include a FAQ on dispensaries and a document, Maryland state proposed action on regulations.

Personally, I don't have significant concerns about medical marijuana or this particular location for a dispensary, although I have heard from a few residents who do have concerns. I don't believe I have been contacted by any Ward 1 residents, other than the applicants, hence this request for your comment. Please let me know what you think the city should do in response to this proposal, whether:

- nothing
- seek Montgomery County Zoning changes
- something else

I'm at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov and 301-873-8225. Write to the whole council, via the city clerk, at clerk@takomaparkmd.gov.

I note that a Washington DC medical marijuana dispensary, the Takoma Wellness Center, has operated since August 2013, without any major incident that I know of, at a location close to the Takoma Metro station.

The dispensaries discussion is scheduled for 9:10 pm.



Follow-up, October 20:

At last night's city council discussion, Stephanie & Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, operators of the Takoma Wellness Center in Washington DC, attended and got lots of council questions about their operations. 

The city council discussed asking the county council to come up with guidelines, but we did not more forward with that idea. Instead, the city council agreed that city staff should research how dispensaries are handled in other jurisdictions and report back to the council. My guess is that the city council won't pick up the topic again before January.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

October 12 council items: Montgomery College, Taco Bell, Hillwood Manor & Rent Stabilization

On Monday evening, October 12, the city council will vote on five items, discuss the site plan application for a proposed Takoma Park Taco Bell, and then discuss a tax waiver to facilitate purchase and rehabilitation of the Hillwood Manor apartments on New Hampshire Avenue.

The meeting agenda is online.

Montgomery College

The first voting item is a Resolution Regarding the Montgomery College Facilities Master Plan (FMP). This FMP update will cover 2016-26 and must be filed with the state by February 1. We expect it will lay out the college's plans for grounds and buildings over the next decade, but we don't have a draft to comment on yet, so the city's resolution comments on expections and the process.

Our key points: New or enlarged construction should be located on the Silver Spring side of the TP/SS campus, and the city, residents, Montgomery County, and Historic Takoma (as a party to a 2002 agreement) must be fully consulted.

Taco Bell

Monday evening's worksession will be the last-minus-1 time the council takes up the Taco Bell restaurant and drive-thru that MUY Companies' proposes to build at New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane. MUY has filed a site plan application and the city has an opportunity to comment. We'll discuss a resolution for an October 19 vote.

MUY proposes a bit of micro-sprawl that would occupy a central location in what the city had hoped would be a pedestrian-friendly zone, the New Ave. MUY has attempted to conform with the letter of the zoning rules and master plans that govern the location, even while including an anti-pedestrian, anti-smart growth, drive-thru service window in the proposal.

I oppose the drive-thru, as do Councilmember Tim Male and many, many community members. I'm hoping we can get at least recognition of concern, about inclusion of a drive-thru and about low-density development, in the city's resolution. Councilmembers Fred Schultz and Kate Stewart and Mayor Bruce Williams have yet to state a firm position on the drive-thru, so if you have thoughts on the topic, you might focus on them.

Do visit the We Can Do Better than a Taco Bell in Takoma Park Facebook page and consider signing on to a resident-generated petition.

Hillwood Manor and Rent Stabilization

The City of Takoma Park is on the fore-front of preserving affordable housing in the Washington DC region, due to our rent-stabilization law and to our willingness to enter into partnerships with organizations the work to rehabilitate properties and maintain their affordability.

Montgomery Housing Partnership (MHP) is on such organization. MHP owns several Takoma Park buildings and seeks a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with the city. that would include a five-year property tax waiver, to facilitate purchase of another building, the Hillwood Manor apartments on New Hampshire Avenue.

In principle, I support an MHP PILOT for Hillwood Manor purchase. I would like to understand the justification for a full, 100% tax abatement, or a lesser amount. The MHP arrangement would allow a rent-stabilization exemption. While MHP has honorably lived up to its past commitments, this would be the first exemption to come up since the Hampshire Towers debacle involving Tenacity Corp., which purchased the building and received a rent-stabilization waiver but did not live up to agreement terms. Tenacity, from all appearances, acted shamefully and the government entities involved, including both the City of Takoma Park and Montgomery County, didn't do our jobs.

The city's grant of rent-stabilization waivers, which property owners including MHP say are a must if they are to receive funding that allows preservation of affordable housing, should be discussed openly. And instead of a waiver's being automatic on application, and conveying automatically when a property is sold, an exemption should be granted only by council vote and should be subject to renewal conditions.

Finally, there should also be a code provision allowing the council to revoke an exemption if the grantee has not complied with terms of the agreement that justified the exemption.

I hope the next council will take up these changes to city code.

Your Thoughts

Please relay your thoughts on these items and other city concerns to me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225, or write the full council via the city clerk at clerk@takomaparkmd.gov.

I have only a little over a month left to my council term. Please do challenge the candidates for election -- the incumbents and aspirants -- candidate information should be posted soon at elections.takomaparkmd.gov -- on every city matter that concerns you, and then vote!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

New Hampshire Avenue opportunities and more: October 5 at the City Council

The centerpiece of Monday evening's city council meeting will be a New Hampshire Avenue item --
Discussion of Recreation Needs and Opportunities in the New Hampshire Avenue Corridor including: a) Report on Concept Plan and Site Analysis for the Site of the New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center; b) Report on Study of Recreational Needs for the New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center; c) Update on the Washington-McLaughlin Property; and, d) Other Opportunities.
This is an important item.

The New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center is owned by M-NCPPC (Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) and is operated and programmed by the City of Takoma Park, in exchange for a yearly modest fee, currently $87,650, provided via Montgomery County Park and Recreation. The facility is out-moded and should be replaced.

The council-meeting materials include reports from two city-commissioned studies:

a) Report on Concept Plan and Site Analysis for the Site of the New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center

b) Report on Study of Recreational Needs for the New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center

I won't summarize them here. I will say that it is Montgomery County's responsibility to renovate or replace this facility, soon. (The city does not receive a tax-duplication payment from the county, and city property owners, unlike Rockville's and Gaithersburg's, are not exempt from the county's line-item "Recreational" property tax.) I expect that Monday evening's council discussion will get into approaches that can bring a modern recreation facility to the eastern side of Takoma Park.

The council will discuss the Washington-McLaughlin Property, specifically, the wooded parcel that the city now owns. (Community members have suggested a better name for the property, the J. Enos Ray woods (or something similar), reverting to the name of the Prince George's County elementary school that used to operate at the site. The Takoma Voice explains, Who was J. Enos Ray anyway?)

At the time we were discussing buying the parcel, I publicly advocated consideration of selling the unwooded part of the parcel for construction of a couple of houses. As I recall, other councilmembers talked about this as well. I believe it is fiscally responsible and quite reasonable to consider recovering money we spent to buy the property. I do support preserving and restoring the woods. I don't recall covenants with anyone regarding disposition of the unwooded part of the parcel.

I would like the city to consider, as an interim measure, rehabilitating the disused basketball court, part of the unwooded portion of the site, for public use. I'm thinking nothing fancy: no lights, fences, or drinking water. Just a new, neighborhood recreational opportunity.

Finally, the agenda item contains a teaser, "At least one other site of considerable size in the eastern portion of the City may become available for recreational or other community use within the coming year." I think I know the site that's being alluded to, and the opportunity is indeed interesting.

The Rest of the Story

The full October 5 council agenda, with background materials, is online

I've separately written up two items, discussion of a resolution commenting on the 2016-26 Montgomery College Facilities Master Plan update and Boston Avenue traffic calming measures.

Otherwise, we'll be discussing:

- FY17 Community Development Block Grants. We anticipate being able to award $11,625 for community- or public-service projects. The Grants Review Committee will present recommendations -- for apartment-tenant community building and for EduCare Support Services' Takoma Park Food Pantry -- at 7:10 pm, with council discussion slated for 8:10 pm. The committee is not recommending funding for a third proposed project, "Pilot Program for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities," proposed by the Village of Takoma Park.

- Snow Removal Policies and Procedures, at 8:30 pm. This item continues early-2015 discussion, advanced by Safe Roadways Committee advocacy, of possible changes to city code. See the council backgrounder for staff's recommendations.

Please contact me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225 with your comments, or send them to the full council via clerk@takomaparkmd.gov.

And don't forget: We have a city election coming up November 3, 2015, with early voting October 30-November 2.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Boston Ave traffic calming, Montgomery College facilities master plan

The city council will consider two items of special interests to North Takoma neighbors, at Monday evening's council meeting.

At 7 pm, the council will hold a public hearing on requested Boston Avenue traffic calming measures. You're invited!

The council will then discuss the request, at 8 pm, following general public comment and other meeting preliminaries. The backgrounder for the hearing and council discussion is online.

The council is slated to discuss, at 9:50 pm, a resolution regarding the 2016-26 update of Montgomery College Facilities Master Plan (FMP). Maryland state regulations require periodic plan updates.

The college first informed the city of the pending update only a little more than a month ago and briefed the community in a September 10 public meeting. As I observe in my September 14 meeting report, the college proposes a highly compressed schedule, in order to meet a February 1, 2016 Maryland Higher Education Commission deadline.

The October 5 city council discussion will surround a draft proposed council resolution commenting on the FMP process. The resolution comments on the process, because we don't yet have a draft 2016-26 FMP to comment on, and according to the college's timeline, we will have only a few days between draft availability and Montgomery College Board of Trustees consideration to comment.

Whether the FMP is subject to Montgomery Planning "mandatory referral," with a 60-day review period, is a matter that is being debated (still, so far as I know) by the Montgomery College and Montgomery Planning lawyers. Note that "Mandatory Referral review and comments by the Planning Board are advisory in that the statute allows the applicant to overrule the Planning Board's disapproval, or any conditions attached to approval, and proceed," according to Montgomery Planning's Mandatory Referral Submission Requirements.

Please review the draft city council resolution. Relay your comments to me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225 or send them to councilmembers via clerk@takomaparkmd.gov.

One remedy we could seek -- not (yet) reflected in the resolution -- is for Montgomery College to expedite facilities master plan development. The college would work to complete a draft by the end of October. The college would release that draft for public comment and for Planning Board review and comment. Allowing 60 days for review, Montgomery College could make any FMP revisions indicated and proceed with planned community meetings the first week of January. Board of Trustees presentation would take place the second week of January and the board approval vote, as already scheduled, on January 25, 2016, in time for February 1, 2016 submission to the state.

The council will discuss the resolution on Monday and vote on it, possibly with revisions, a week later, on October 12.

Finally: A reminder that there will be a meeting on traffic & parking around MC, Thursday, October 15, 2015 at 7:00 pm in Room CM211 in the Catherine F. Scott Commons Building on the MC Takoma Park campus.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Update on Takoma Junction development, Orchard Avenue development, and more at the Sept 28 city council meeting

Yesterday's Takoma Junction
Yesterday's Takoma Junction
Neighborhood Development Company (NDC), the city's chosen Takoma Junction development partner, will present an update on plans at the Monday evening, September 28 city council meeting. The presentation by NDC CEO and founder Adrian Washington and Michael Gilioni, analyst, acquisitions and development, is scheduled for 7 pm to 8 pm. Join us at the community center auditorium or view video via city TV live-streaming.

The city maintains a Takoma Junction redevelopment page. The council met last week to review a development agreement drafted by the real-estate attorneys retained by the city to assist us with the Takoma Junction process. NDC may request changes to the draft; once signed, the agreement will provide a framework for next steps include community design meetings and stakeholder consultations, including with the TPSS Co-op.

The Regular Meeting

The full September 28 council agenda is online. Public comment is scheduled for 8 pm, followed by a number of voting items.

Orchard Avenue Site Plan Comment

The first voting item is a Resolution Commenting on Site Plan for 6413 Orchard Avenue. Maggio Roofing plans to build a two-story storage structure at the site, which is adjacent to residences and close to an existing community garden and the planned Sligo Mill Overlook Park and playground, which are situated on Orchard Avenue. The site is a block from New Hampshire Avenue, but the existing street grid routes commercial traffic including trucks past the garden and park-playground site.

While the 6413 Orchard Avenue plan is of particular interest to Pinecrest neighborhood residents and businesses, commercial-corridor development has impacted and will affect residents in many Takoma Park neighborhoods, particularly along New Hampshire Avenue. The proposed Taco Bell, at New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane, is another, immediate example. The steps the city takes in the Orchard-Sligo Mill area -- beyond the council resolution on Monday evening's agenda -- and our to-be-discussed position on the Taco Bell site plan will show the degree of regard we pay to residents' concerns while accommodating business requests.

Elections and Council Compensation

The council will vote Monday evening whether to put an advisory question on the 2015 ballot for referendum vote, whether to change the municipal election year to even years in order to align city elections with federal, state, and county general elections, and we will hear a presentation by the Council Compensation Committee regarding recommendations for council salary adjustments. Visit the meeting agenda page for these and other items, and do relay your views to me by e-mail, sethg@takomaparkmd.gov, or phone, 301-873-8225.

The 2015 Election

Finally, the nominating caucus for the 2015 election takes place Tuesday evening, September 29, starting at 7:30 pm. Election Day is November 3, preceded by several days of early voting.

The last day to register to vote via the Maryland State Board of Elections or the Montgomery County Board of Elections is October 13. Given Takoma Park same-day registration and voting, enacted in 2013, for city elections, residents (including non-citizens and 16 & 17 year olds) may register any time, up to and including the day of the election.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

City Council, September 21: Taco Bell, city committees, and more

The first agenda item at Monday evening's city council meeting -- following preliminaries that include 7:30 pm public comment -- is dryly titled "Presentation and Discussion of Site Plan Application for N.E. Quadrant of New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane (Taco Bell)." Key in on the last bit:

A San Antonio, Texas franchisee, MUY Companies, proposes to construct a Taco Bell restaurant at New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane, a location along a stretch that the city hopes to revitalize as The New Ave. MUY is required to file a site plan for Montgomery County Planning Board review that looks at, per the city council backgrounder, "landscaping, parking, and building specifics." The city may choose to comment on the site plan and call for rejection, approval, or approval with conditions.

I don't have any thoughts to offer on Taco Bell per se. I am distressed, however, about MUY's proposed mini-sprawl site design. The city seeks to encourage "quality, mixed-use, pedestrian oriented projects" along the New Ave. Design guidelines call for higher-density, multi-story development that will help us realize a smart-growth vision, centered on transit-friendly development, along New Hampshire Avenue, the city's most important commercial corridor.

The proposed project is a single-story building with a drive-thru service window. The proposed project detracts from the New Ave vision. It will degrade its location and offer lamentably few benefits for residents.

MUY Companies should eliminate the drive-thru and create a multi-story building with, if they still wish, Taco Bell as the ground-floor business. Failing these steps, I disfavor the proposed site plan.

If they chose to partner with local owners -- part of Takoma Park's ethos is a preference for small, locally-owned businesses -- that would be even better.

(Please see also my April 2015 write-up, Taco Bell in Takoma Park?!)

The full agenda for the Monday evening, September 21 council meeting is online.

Takoma Junction Legal Advice

The council plans to meet in closed session, "to receive legal advice regarding a development agreement with NDC for the City-owned lot in Takoma Junction," prior to the 7:30 pm start of the public meeting. NDC is the Neighborhood Development Company, the developer chosen by the city to pursue construction on the city-owned Takoma Junction parking lot. We're making progress on a careful process toward Takoma Junction revitalization. Additional community meetings with the developer should be scheduled soon.

City Boards, Commissions, and Committees

Three agenda items follow the Taco Bell site plan presentation and discussion. They are discussions of:

- A Bus Shelter Contract with Signal Outdoor Advertising, LLC
- State Legislation including Bond Bills
- The Appointment Process for City Boards, Commissions and Committees

The state legislation item will include a look ahead to the 2016 legislative session, which opens in January. Over the summer, the city forwarded three legislative action requests to the Maryland Municipal League, but of course we have many other interests we may wish to pursue in the next session. I'll single out one: state bond funding toward library renovation. Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegate Sheila Hixson have indicated willingness to submit bond bills, which could provide a few hundred thousand dollars toward the overall project cost should the city move ahead with library renovation.

The item on city boards, commissions, and committees is scheduled for 9:30 pm. Community members devote thousands of hours annually to this form of city service. Thank You! to all who participate; there are many opportunities to get involved. The Recreation Committee and Arts and Humanities Commission in particular could use new members.

Monday evening's discussion will cover our approach to recruiting and appointing applicants. This topic is especially significant because committee service (along with participation in tenant and neighborhood associations and community volunteering) is a very important element in maintaining responsive, inclusive city government.

Contact

Finally, my council service will end in two months. Until that time, I'll continue to do my best to represent and serve Ward 1 resident and other city stakeholders. As always, please contact me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225 with city-related questions and concerns.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Montgomery College Facilities Master Plan update

I attended the Montgomery College meeting last week, on the planned Facilities Master Plan update, as did Jason Damweber and Roz Grigsby for the city. Residents attending included Lorraine Pearsall, Paul Chrostowski, Peter Kovar, and Richard Weil.

I'll give a few highlights from the meeting, and I ask residents to please contact the council (clerk@takomaparkmd.gov or direct councilmember contact or public comment at a meeting) to ask the council to enact a resolution commenting on the plan.

- The Facilities Master Plan covers all three campuses: TP/SS, Gaithersburg, and Rockville.

- The schedule is compressed. MC plans to come up with a plan, covering the 3 campuses, and present it at public meetings December 8, 9, 10 (one at each campus), then present it to the MC board on December 14 and seek board approval January 25. The plan is due to the state February 1.

- MC hadn't planned a public comment period and said the facilities master plan is not subject to Montgomery County Planning Board Review. A Planning Board rep who was there, Marc DeOcampo, disputed that and said he believes there's a mandatory 60 referral period.

- In any case, MC says there won't be much new in the plan, that it will include building reconstruction that was in the 2006-16 plan that never happened. I believe that includes the science center buildings. MC foresees reconstruction in place rather than on the Burlington Ave parcel that's owned by the MC Foundation or onto the self-store parcels, which they'd have to acquire.

- The City Council passed a 2008 resolution commenting on a Facilities Master Plan Update. It's at http://cityclerk-takomapark.s3.amazonaws.com/resolutions/2008/r200862.pdf.

Dewey Yeates, MC's facilities and security vice president, said MC would be willing to meet with the city/neighbors during the course of creation of the Facilities Master Plan update, but of course there's nothing to react to right now.

I am asking my council colleagues to consider a resolution stating a city position on MC TP/SS facilities. It would reiterate points from the city's 2008 resolution, updated for current conditions of course, and perhaps include something about the compressed schedule and lack of a meaningful public comment period.

Based on conversations with the neighbors who attended, we should continue council advocacy of neighborhood-scale facilities in the Takoma Park portion of the campus.

Seth, 301-873-8225

Monday, September 7, 2015

September 8 council update: Carroll Ave bridge closure and discussion about moving city elections to even years

Happy Labor Day to all!

The city council's summer recess is over. The are five items on the meeting agenda for Tuesday, September 8. I'll give a run-down on the whole of the agenda and focus on two items, traffic calming associated with pending Carroll Ave bridge closure for reconstruction and discussion of a referendum on moving city elections to even years.

The meeting will open with a 7 pm public hearing on priority needs and proposed projects for Community Development Block Grant funding. CDBG is a federal program that targets persons or households of low and moderate income. If you have views on priorities, please attend and speak.

We will then, at 7:10 pm, have a report from the Emergency Preparedness Committee and emergency manager, followed by discussion and then the start of the regular meeting including public comment on other agenda items and city matters. At 8:10 pm, we're slated to discuss a site plan for a proposed project at 6413 Orchard Avenue, in the city's Pinecrest neighborhood.

A Referendum on Moving City Elections to Even Years

Councilmember Tim Male has proposed a referendum item, for the city's 2015 ballot, on moving city elections to even years, when they would coincide with non-municipal general elections. The aim is to boost voter participation in city elections, taking advantage of the higher voter turn-out generated by county, state, and federal races.

Material for September 8 council agenda item, which includes discussion of other 2015 election matters including early-voting dates, is online.

At this point, I support Councilmember Male's proposal and am leaning toward Option 2, which includes the clause "assuming voting rights can be maintained for 16-17 year olds, non-citizens and people with felony convictions who are on parole." I will explain my support, but also I'd very much like to hear your view regarding a referendum item.

Takoma Park has had non-U.S. citizen voting for many years, for municipal elections only of course. We introduced 16 year old voting, and voting rights for on-parole and on-probation felons, in 2013, along with candidate access to apartment buildings and same-day registration and voting including on election day, this year November 3. These steps aim to encourage civic inclusion and to redress voting and voter-registration disparities. I wrote about these disparities in my February, 2013 "Let's Enfranchise Takoma Park Renters and Strengthen the Right to Vote!"

Even-year voter turn-out should better reflect the proportion of minority and renter residents than we see in our current odd-year city elections. There is risk that attention to city issues and candidates would be drowned out by news from the larger races and that many voters will be making uninformed choices among city candidates, but I can't see how we'd be worse off than we are now, when turn-out for (rare) hotly contested races barely exceeds one-third. And there's a limitation: A switch to even-year voting won't enfranchise the disproportionate number of minority and renter residents who aren't registered to vote. Yes, disparities will remain, but we should move forward where we can and keep working on additional steps.

What do you think about placing the voting-year change on the 2015 ballot?

Council discussion is scheduled for 9:30 pm.

Carroll Avenue Bridge Closure

Finally, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is slated to begin rehabilitation of the Carroll Avenue bridge, near Washington Adventist Hospital, this fall. (The SHA will hold an informational meeting on September 24, 6-8 pm, at the Takoma Park fire station).

A city council discussion of temporary traffic calming measures, designed to mitigate the impact of the bridge closure, is scheduled for 8:50 pm. But because Ward 1 will be least-affected of the city's six wards by traffic changes caused by the bridge closure, I expect to defer to my council colleagues in this discussion.


Please contact me with questions or concerns about these or other city matters, at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bans as Takoma Park City Policy

Councilmember Jarrett Smith has drafted an ordinance that states, "a store may not distribute plastic disposable carryout bags to a customer at the point of sale." The proposed ban would not apply to packaging for bulk items, for restaurant carry-out, or certain other uses. It would address environmental and litter concerns.

I asked constituents' reactions. I got several pro responses and several opposing. Some opponents question the justification for this particular ban, and other think we do too much banning for a small city. One neighbor's response: "The only ban I would  like to see the City Council approve would be a ban on bans." Another asked, "what about addressing the tons of plastic and Styrofoam in all the things we buy? From plastic clamshells at Whole Foods to the many square feet of Styrofoam in the new printer we purchased, it makes up a significant percentage of my garbage each week." That is, there are bigger fish to fry, beyond the city's reach.

Let's look at local bans, starting with polystyrene, the material in Styrofoam.

The Young Activist Club celebrates Takoma Park's polystyrene ban
The city banned polystyrene food-service materials, via the Young Activist Act of 2014 (which I drafted in response to Young Activist Club advocacy), which went into effect July 1. It covers both foam and hard polystyrene food packaging. A Montgomery County polystyrene ban -- foam-only but also covering packing "peanuts" -- was introduced last year by Councilmember Hans Riemer. It will go into effect January 1, 2016. The ban on "peanuts" will affect local shipping stores, for instance, but of course isn't going to touch industrial packaging for shipping.

The city included hard polystyrene -- items such as Solo cups -- because the Young Activist Club made a strong argument about the health repercussions of those materials, in addition to their non-recyclability.

The point about bans is that they change behaviors in ways that reduce environmental harm and health threats. Replacement materials or practices are boosted and eventually you don't even think about the olds ways. We don't burn leaves any more nor smoke in restaurants or offices.

Montgomery County banned transfats back in 2007. An article from back then notes "Sara Lee cakes, for example, will be exempt" because they're produced and packaged outside the county. Fast forward to June 2015: "FDA orders food manufacturers to stop using trans fat within three years," reports CNN, for the same reasons the county banned them.

Sometimes local actions build into national change.

Back to local: I got take-out last week from a Takoma Park restaurant I've been patronizing for over 15 years. They're still using polystyrene cups, plates, and carry-out containers. They're aware of the city law but claim they can't find a supplier of non-polystyrene materials. That's bogus, and I'll add that this place's prices are high enough to cover any added cost. The city has provided information about suppliers; I'll make sure it gets to the restaurant again. The approach is to educate and facilitate, not to jump to punishment, in order to get to positive change.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

City council update, July 27, and Should the city ban plastic single-use carryout bags?

The Monday evening city council meeting is the last before a summer recess. The council has a packed agenda. Highlighting certain items -- the council expects to:

- Approve FY16 community grants. The council discussed the Grants Committee's recommendations last week and decided to shift $11,200 to the Old Takoma Business Association for festival support and $3,800 to the New Hampshire Gardens Civic Association.

- Authorize a contract for continued library renovation design. The council had included $200,000 in the city's FY16 budget for redesign next steps. We are not yet committed to library renovation but do need to proceed with detailed design to support the renovation decision. The aim is modernize the staff, stack, and program space and the restrooms and make the library accessible to persons with disabilities and improve overall flexibility and usability.

- Authorize purchase of thirty police body cameras and replacement tasers, and also of replacement police vehicles and equipment.

- Receive the city manager's quarterly report (which is not yet available). I'll just say that it has been a pleasure working with CM Suzanne Ludlow in the 3 months since the council appointed her. The city continues to operate well, and Suzie's work, extending back over the last few years, has been instrumental in bringing complicated matters such as union negotiations to successful conclusions.

- Discuss a request for proposals for a consultant who would look at police-community relations and recommend, per the draft RFP, an "implementable approach to building, strengthening and maintaining a strong positive relationship between the Takoma Park Police Department and the various communities of Takoma Park."

- Discuss options for refresh of the city's noise ordinance. This is the last item on the agenda, slated for 9:30 pm discussion.

The public meeting will be preceded by a 6:00 pm closed session "to receive legal advice related to terms and conditions to be included in a letter of intent with NDC for the redevelopment of the Takoma Junction property." NDC is the Neighborhood Development Company, the developer the council chose to move forward with revitalization of the city-owned lot in Takoma Junction. We're making progress!

Finally, should the city ban plastic single-use carryout bags?

Councilmember Jarrett Smith has drafted an ordinance that states, "a store may not distribute plastic disposable carryout bags to a customer at the point of sale." The proposed ban would not apply to packaging for bulk items, for restaurant carry-out, or certain other uses. It would address environmental and litter concerns. 

Montgomery County requires a 5-cent charge for each bag provided by county retail establishments that sell goods and provide the customer a carryout bag (either paper or plastic) to carry their purchases out of the store. It went into effect January 1, 2012. A city law would take precedence within our borders.

What do you think?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

July 20 update: Recycling, grants, legislative requests, and problem properties

The Monday evening, July 20 city council agenda includes a first vote on extending recycling requirements to city businesses, continued discussion of vacant and blighted properties, a resolution on city requests for state legislative action, and three grants items: a vote on $10,000 construction funds for the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church Commercial Kitchen and discussions of city large grant designees and of community legacy grants.

The meeting opens with public comment at 7:30 pm.

Recycling

Following preliminaries, the council will vote on a recycling ordinance. Montgomery County requires businesses to recycle, but this particular county law doesn't apply in Takoma Park. To me, matching the county's business recycling requirement -- and taking steps to facilitate recycling by apartment residents -- is a long-overdue no-brainer.

Problem Properties

Skipping ahead: The final item on the agenda is continued discussion of vacant and blighted properties, slated for 9:30 pm.

This is an on-going discussion, prompted by the existence of too many vacant, run-down residential and commercial properties within the city. The Washington-McLaughlin property off New Hampshire Avenue at Poplar Avenue is a glaring example: Formerly a school, now in very-partial use as a senior residence and adult day care facility. The city would like to see this property and dozens of others in Takoma Park returned to productive use.

Further, in many cases, the properties are neighborhood nuisances, for instance, in Ward 1, the house at Piney Branch Road and Philadelphia Avenue. We have had extreme neglect situations where regrettably the only feasible outcome is demolition. 36 Philadelphia Avenue, now a vacant lot, is an example.

We have tools available to us but need more: The topic for Monday evening's discussion.

Legislative Action Requests

Each year, the city gets to ask the Maryland Municipal League to consider three items as MML legislative priorities for the next state legislative session. At a July 13 worksession, the council identified five items. You can see the five in the meeting backgrounder. Monday evening, we'll winnow the list down to three.

My inclination is to go with reforms to state tax duplication mandates (which I'll explain to anyone who wants to know) and a communication and coordination mandate for utilities and public agencies such as the State Highway Administration. I would expand the latter item to cover counties, who also face problems working with utilities, and not just cities. My third would be either a Highway User Revenue item or, more likely, a bill regarding reporting of pension liabilities.

Grants

The first of three grant items is a vote on a $10,000 construction grant for the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church commercial kitchen, recommended by the 2014 Grants Committee but deferred by the council pending progress in neighbor-church discussions. The parties agreed to a mediation involving neighbor and church representatives.

One outcome is that the kitchen group scaled back the design from what had been proposed a year or so ago. A second is that the parties have reached an "agreement in principle." They did table a number of topics until an October meeting but none relate to kitchen construction. In bringing the item to a council vote, the mayor clearly believes that progress has been sufficient to meet last year's council conditions. Myself, I have weighed all community views. I am aiming to act in a fair and principled manner and I'm aware of still-open concerns. I know all the parties and believe they will work in good faith toward resolution of open operational issues -- their goal is to finalize and execute an agreement by November 30, 2015 -- regardless of the release of the $10,000 in construction funds, and I plan to vote for the grant.

At 8:30 pm, the council is slated to discuss FY16 community grants, the city's large grants program. The 2015 Grants Committee presented its recommendations at the July 6 council meeting, per the July 20 backgrounder. My inclination is to go with the committee's recommendations with one addition and one adjustment. The committee left $4,000 unallocated. I would put this money, and move $7,500 from the Dance Exchange (DX) grant (leaving $22,500), toward a $11,500 grant to the Old Takoma Business Association for community festivals. OTBA-organized festivals enrich and draw outsiders to our community. City financial support is key. The adjustment would bring the DX grant in line with other partial grants to the Crossroads Community Food Network, EduCare Support Services, and Community Health and Empowerment Through Education and Research (CHEER).

And a discussion of proposed FY16 Maryland Community Legacy grants is scheduled for 9 pm. The proposed capital projects focus on two adjacent New Hampshire Avenue commercial properties. New Hampshire Avenue (the New Ave) revitalization is a key priority so I anticipate that the council will approve an application for these uses.

Your Thoughts?

Please let me know what you're thinking: 301-873-8225 or sethg@takomaparkmd.gov.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

July 13 update: Piney Branch pool, library renovation, business recycling, and legislative priorities

The city council's agenda for Monday evening, July 13, starts with a 7 pm public hearing on business recycling.

Business Recycling

A proposed code revision would match a Montgomery County recycling requirement that was first enacted in 1993. City action to require recycling by businesses is long overdue! At the same time, the city would require that landlords of multi-unit apartment buildings provide adequate recycling facilities and that tenants recycle. We already require that residents of single-family home separate out recyclables.

Piney Branch Elementary School Pool


We will have public comment as usual at 7:30 pm, then vote on a resolution supporting keeping the Piney Branch Elementary School (PBES) pool open and urging Montgomery County to maintain its FY16 funding.

County Executive Ike Leggett has put pool operating funds on the chopping block, along with $50 million in other spending, due to an expected county revenue shortfall. The PBES pool plays an important community role. It's used by kids who wouldn't otherwise have access to lessons and recreational swimming, by seniors, by a wide swath of the community.

Reporting last May describes the situation.

If you support pool funding, please sign a Save Piney Branch Pool petition and ALSO contact county councilmembers directly by phone or by e-mail:

Craig Rice <councilmember.rice@montgomerycountymd.gov>
George Leventhal <Councilmember.Leventhal@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Hans Riemer <Councilmember.Riemer@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Marc Elrich <Councilmember.Elrich@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Nancy Floreen <Councilmember.Floreen@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Nancy Navarro <Councilmember.navarro@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Tom Hucker <councilmember.hucker@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Roger Berliner <councilmember.berliner@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Sidney Katz <councilmember.katz@montgomerycountymd.gov>

Legislative Priorities

After a number of voting items -- see the full meeting agenda -- the council will discuss 2016 Maryland legislative priorities. These are proposed items that the city would like to see supported by the Maryland Municipal League, a state-wide association. Each city gets to propose three items. Takoma Park's annual suggestions usually relate to state revenues, county-city tax duplication (which is very imperfectly addressed in state law), and larger-scale matters such as transportation funding.

Please share your thoughts!

Anticipating one question/comment: I'm trying to find out status of the Maryland Health Care Commission's issuing draft regulations regarding the licensure of freestanding medical facilities (emergency rooms) and of the MHCC's appointing a working group on the topic. These MHCC steps are overdue. A state moratorium on licensing of new freestanding ERs was due to have expired on July 1.

Library Renovation

Finally, the council is slated to continue, at approximately 8:50 pm, our discussion with staff of library renovation options. The council voted to include $200,000 in the city's FY16 budget for design of a modernized library building, one that will be accessible to persons with disabilities and that will support city library and programming needs for years to come.

The city has a Web page on the Library Renovation Project.

Your comments are welcome.