On the eve of the State of the Union address, here is an update on the state of our wonderful county (sorry, that's the best segue I could come up with!).
Issues abound - the fate of our county's future hangs in the balance in Annapolis on whether they come up with transportation funding; the look and feel of Connecticut Avenue will be changed as a result of our work ahead on the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan; we worked harmoniously with the Board of Education to accelerate security enhancements in the aftermath of Newtown; legislation I sponsored to maximize the creation of affordable housing on our own county property was unanimously approved; and we are trying to provide a little more protection for trees and our valuable tree canopy.
In the midst of all that, my colleagues and I took the SNAP challenge - living on a $5 a day food budget as those on food stamps must do. It was very instructive. I know that I for one would have a hard time eating healthily on $5 a day - and this time around I did not. I was heavy into the carbs. But even more importantly, it allowed me, ever so briefly, to experience a way of living that is not mine - and that I would not want. That shift in consciousness is the seed for greater compassion, and for that I am truly grateful.
Transportation Funding: Will Our State Make it a Priority?
This year's legislative session in Annapolis represents a critical moment for our county's future. As I have reported in the past, finding a sustainable source of funding for our county's transportation needs remains a top priority and we can't do that without action from the Maryland General Assembly. Simply put, our county's future depends on creating more transit options.
In fact, if the Governor and the Legislature fail to find a way to provide a secure source of revenues to meet our transit needs this year, the state Department of Transportation has said - officially - that it will take more than $50 million currently allocated for the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway in FY 14 and reprogram those dollars for other projects in other parts of the state. I have protested that action in a letter, calling it "unacceptable", and have urged the Department to reconsider.
The President of the State Senate, Senator Mike Miller recently introduced two transportation funding bills for consideration by his colleagues. I applaud him for getting this important conversation started in Annapolis. Now we need the Governor and the Speaker to join in this conversation. Hopefully, there will be a broad discussion of this topic before the Assembly adjourns in April.
If you care about the future of our county's infrastructure like I do, please contact your State representatives and urge them to make transportation a top priority this legislative session.
Council and Board of Education Collaborate on Accelerated Funding for School Safety
Last week the Council approved a supplemental appropriation to the FY13 budget for Montgomery County Public Schools that will provide the necessary funding to continue installation of access control systems on the remaining elementary schools that do not yet have them.
A number of parents in District 1 contacted me in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, CT with their specific concerns about certain MCPS facilities that did not yet have an access control system installed. I understood those concerns, and shared them with my colleagues on the Council and the Board of Education. Our Council could not accelerate this work unless the the Board requested it. Gratefully, the Board did just that, and my colleagues on the Council and I voted unanimously to get this work done now - not later.
I want to thank members of the school community who wrote letters, sent emails, made phone calls, and testified before the Council regarding the need for the accelerated funding. This is a terrific example of community engagement producing quick results from local government.
Legislation to Maximize Use of County Assets in Creating More Affordable Housing: Passed
On the last day of my term as Council President I introduced legislation that would encourage the County to maximize the use of our own assets to create additional affordable housing.
As I said in my last newsletter, Montgomery County is a national leader on affordable housing - but we can and must do more. The DC region is expected to need 35,000 new affordable housing units by 2030 to accommodate our growing workforce. To continue to thrive in an increasingly competitive region, we must be at the forefront of this effort.
Bill 37-12, which passed unanimously on Tuesday, requires the Executive Branch to submit an evaluation of the feasibility of co-locating affordable housing with most new projects in our County's Capital Improvements Program. Co-locating affordable housing won't be right for every project, but we need to get creative in order to add to our current stock. If Alexandria can do it on top of a firestation, there are sure to be appropriate opportunities here in Montgomery County, too. I am pleased that this legislation had the support of my colleagues and I look forward to continuing to work with the County Executive and his staff on this critical issue.
A Vote on Accessory Apartments
The Council took a final vote on the matter of accessory apartments on Tuesday. Following the lengthy public hearing back in September, I wrote to you that I hoped our Council would "find ways in which we can facilitate more affordable housing opportunities and still honor and maintain the integrity of our wonderful residential neighborhoods." After extensive work of the PHED Committee, and after taking into account some of the biggest concerns of residents, I believe we have done that.
The Council took a straw vote on January 22, that tentatively approved ZTA 12-11, which amends the Zoning Ordinance to allow accessory apartments under certain circumstances; and Bill 31-12, which establishes a licensing procedure for accessory apartments. But after the straw vote, like many of you, I remained concerned that the proposed limit on accessory apartments - 2500 square feet - was just way too large. I also shared the concern of many of my constituents that removing the requirement that a home be at least five years old before allowing an accessory apartment could allow the construction of homes with built-in accessory apartments "on spec."
Given the strong concern among my constituents on these two points, I offered amendments that addressed both: the first amendment set the size limit back down to the current limit, 1200 square feet; the second reinserted the five year requirement. I am pleased that both of these amendments passed with strong support from my colleagues on an 8-1 vote. After voting on these amendments, the Council unanimously approved both ZTA 12-11 and Bill 31-12.
I know that this proposal has caused some concern among communities in District 1. I want to thank my constituents who constructively engaged with the Council on this issue, because in the end, I think we arrived at a finished product that reflected community concerns but still achieves the original objective: to modestly add to the stock of affordable housing in the County and to allow for a more streamlined process while allowing community concerns regarding parking in particular to be fully aired where appropriate.
Update on County Tree Legislation
Our county's tree canopy is a substantial asset - economically, aesthetically, and environmentally. Protecting our trees is important work - and hard work. How it is done not only affects the values we want to promote, such as those above, but also has economic consequences, particularly for builders and owners of residential lots that are being redeveloped.
There are two bills that have been introduced that are seeking to provide more protection for our tree canopy than exists currently - a narrow "street tree" bill that I have introduced with Councilmember Elrich and a broader "tree canopy" bill that was drafted by the County Executive. You may have seen information about these bills sent by builders who oppose these measures. In part, I want to make sure that you understand how different they are. My "street tree" bill, Bill 41-12, for example, is only intended to protect trees in our County's right of way -- and not impact or intrude upon private property rights. You would not know that from the material that is being circulated.
In one of the oddities of our law, trees in our county's right of way are subject to state permitting authority. I have never understood why we in Montgomery County would want one of our assets to be subject to a distant state bureaucracy. That fundamental disconnect was deepened when the state acknowledged, in writing, that it had no capacity to enforce the law due to a lack of resources. Typically the state law is invoked when a builder wants to take down a tree in our right of way to facilitate a new driveway for a home being built on an "in-fill" lot in the down county. The builder typically pays the state $25 for a permit to take down the tree and is required to plant a new one in its place.
Bill 41-12 is designed to allow our County, not the state, to ensure that trees in our County's right of ways are protected by us. The bill takes most of the provisions of the state law and incorporates them into our law, which our county counsel has said is necessary for us to enforce the law. But it is only activity in our right of way, not on private property, that is subject to this proposed legislation.
The County Executive's "tree canopy" legislation, Bill 35-12, is much broader and does affect private property rights. The legislation is born out of the conviction that there is a value to our county in having tree canopy, particularly down county where infill development is taking place. It basically says that if you take down trees to build a new home, you must pay into a fund that the county will use to replant trees elsewhere. How much is paid has not been specified in the legislation. As Chair of the committee that has jurisdiction over this measure, I have advised the County Executive's staff that I will not move the bill out of committee until we know how much we are charging for canopy. It is the critical issue and it must be dealt with in the legislation.
So, there you have it. Trees are a valuable asset, and protecting them is a legitimate exercise of our county's authority. Doing it sensibly and responsibly is a harder challenge, one we will continue to work on.
Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan Update
The Planning Board has finished its review of the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan and transmitted its approved draft to the Council. The next step in the process is for the Council to hold its public hearing. This will take place on March 5 at 7:30 pm at the Council Office Building in Rockville.
To sign up to testify, please call 240-777-7803. After the public hearing , the Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee (PHED) will review the plan and make recommendations to the full Council. While I am not a member of the PHED Committee, I plan to sit in on the PHED Committee's deliberations on the plan as I do on all plans in District 1.
I have had the pleasure of meeting with several neighborhood representatives about this plan already and look forward to further discussion on this topic. I will share more detail about this Sector Plan in future editions of The Berliner Brief.