Well, this is our Council's budget season, and we are entering the home stretch. Final votes are next week, and I will share with you shortly after that -- in a special budget report -- a summary of our actions.
In the meantime, it isn't as if there aren't other important issues percolating -- from progress on a new BCC middle school, pushing hard for utility service worthy of the 21st century, land use decisions in Chevy Chase, a massive overhaul of our zoning laws, to working to make our County more supportive of small businesses and attracting cutting edge green tech firms. And those are just a few of the issues occupying my time and the time of my staff.
I hope that you have been enjoying our spring and that this report finds you well. We will be back to you in a couple of weeks with the budget report. Until then...
Advancing a Better Utility Model
I don't need to tell you that we need a "revolution" when it comes to utility service to our community. We have all experienced one of the most glaring signs of our antiquated system - among the worst reliability in the nation. And that must be fixed, and fixed soon. But reliability issues are themselves symptomatic of a much larger failing, the failure to have the kind of utility service that we should expect in the 21st century. We need utility service that Steve Jobs would be proud of - we need "Utility 2.0".
At my urging, the Governor's reliability task force requested the Energy Future Coalition to provide a framework for two pilot programs that would lead us toward Utility 2.0. The task force acknowledged the need for "big, bold thinking." Yesterday, I released their long awaited report in a filing with the Maryland Public Service Commission. It clearly fulfills the request for "big, bold thinking." It envisions turning the utility paradigm upside down: allowing consumers, not the utility companies, to control our energy future -- a future they believe can be more cost-effective, efficient, greener, technologically advanced, and less vulnerable.
Specifically, the Energy Future Coalition submits that the model "Utility 2.0" would consist of the following qualities:
- Performance-based ratemaking: aligning the financial returns of utilities with how it performs on key metrics;
- Having a smarter, customer-driven grid: giving customers more control over their energy consumption using advanced, real-time technologies;
- "On-bill" financing: allowing utilities to finance and customers to repay efficiency investments directly through their bill;
- Micro-grids: that will allow large customers and neighborhoods to use distributed, renewable power with far greater reliability;
- Support for electric vehicle deployment: utility provides substantial initial cost vouchers in exchange for customers allowing the utility to manage their charging.
This is an energy future that I support. And one that we can have. The technology exists. The challenge is institutional. As the Energy Future Coalition explained, our regulatory model is a "vestige of ...century old thinking", and our utilities are inherently "conservative" and "not innovators." That is why we need our state regulators to lead.
Typically, state regulators are reactive. But we will not get to where we need to be if our regulators are reactive. We need them to help forge the path to a different energy future, one that serves our residents so very much better. That is why I have urged the Commission to initiate a proceeding that would explore "Utility 2.0", encourage a broader conversation among all stakeholders, and adopt a pilot in Montgomery County that can demonstrate the value of utility service appropriate for the 21st century. You can see my request to the Commission and the Energy Future Coalition's report by clicking here.
Update on BCC Middle School #2
I have been following the status of the second middle school planned for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Cluster very closely. The new school is badly needed in order to relieve severe overcrowding in the cluster, and to finally provide the necessary space to move the sixth graders out of Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase Elementary Schools and into a middle school where they belong.
The school system conducted two separate site selection processes, which my staff attended. Both of the site selections culminated in the same result: Rock Creek Hills Local Park was identified as the top choice for locating the future school. Maybe not surprisingly, the Park and Planning Commission was not thrilled with the idea of using the property for anything other than a park -- but it acknowledged that the school system does retain "recall rights" per the original transfer agreement that conveyed the former Kensington Junior High site to the Parks Department.
Some of my constituents who live near the park were not thrilled either, to say the least. They filed a lawsuit that challenged the transfer of the property back to the school system. With litigation outstanding, legal staffs at the respective County agencies were reluctant to move forward with the transfer. But on April 23, the Circuit Court dismissed the lawsuit.
With litigation out of the way, I am very pleased that the new middle school is moving forward. Providing adequate facilities is critical to creating an educational environment that allows our students to learn and thrive. I look forward to seeing the new middle school open on its current schedule, in time for the 2017-18 school year.
Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan
Thank you to all of you who turned out to testify at the Council's public hearing on the Planning Board Draft of the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan. We always appreciate hearing the feedback of our residents and that feedback helps us be more informed as we review the plan and deliberate over its key elements.
The Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee (PHED) began its review of the plan last month with an overview briefing. In June, after the Council finalizes and approves the FY14 County Budget, the PHED Committee will return to the Sector Plan and resume its work in earnest. The first few meetings of the PHED Committee will be on June 10 (2 PM), June 17 (2 PM), and June 24 (2 PM). You are always welcome to attend or watch these sessions online or on County Cable Montgomery.
While I am not a member of this committee, I plan to participate in the PHED Committee discussions, albeit as a non-voting member. Once the PHED Committee concludes its deliberations and makes its recommendations, the full Council will hold worksessions, make any necessary adjustments, and vote on its approved version of the Sector Plan.
Although the Council's work has not yet really begun, I have already met with members of the Connecticut Avenue Corridor Coalition, the Chevy Chase Hills neighborhood, and other residential communities in proximity to the Sector Plan boundaries to discuss preliminary thoughts on the Plan. My staff and I will continue to follow it closely and look forward to working with all interested stakeholders during the review process this summer and fall. Please do not hesitate to call my office at (240) 777-7828 if you would like to meet on this topic.
Navigating the Small Business Maze
After years of hearing complaints from the owners and operators of small businesses trying to navigate the regulatory process in Montgomery County, we have made a major step forward.
The Council voted last May to support my initiative to create the position of Small Business Navigator, housed in the Department of Economic Development. As a result, we now have our first small business navigator -- Ms. Judy Stephenson, an experienced small business owner. I have met with Ms. Stephenson and am impressed with her capacity and desire to help our small business community thrive.
As a result, Ms. Stephenson and I are partnering with several County Chambers of Commerce on a public forum to hear from members of the small business community. The forum is scheduled for June 17 at 8:00 AM in the main hearing room of the Council Office Building. We want to hear what they believe should be done to make County government a better partner in ensuring their success in Montgomery County.
If you are a small business owner and you would like to attend the forum, please give my office a call to RSVP at (240) 777-7828 .
Managing the County's Significant
Deer damage to the forest undergrowth, collisions with automobiles, and farm crop and landscape damage is an ongoing problem. As a member of the Public Safety Committee, with oversight of this issue, and as someone who almost hit a deer myself and sees deer regularly when walking my dog, I have worked hard on this issue for a number of years.
We are making modest progress. Our continuing concern about the deer overpopulation problem in our neighborhoods has resulted in action in two areas. Montgomery County Parks Department has been conducting controlled hunts in county owned parks for several years using police sharpshooters. The county has established a deer donation program for area food banks.
A contributing factor to the problem is deer that reside in the national parks like the C&O Canal which are controlled by the National Park Service (NPS) and come out of these protected areas into our communities. NPS policies require a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review in order to remove native wildlife from a park. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be completed. The most recent example is the Rock Creek process which took six years to complete that cost $450,000 resulting in a controlled hunt this year.
On April 19, we received a response from the NPS Regional Director indicating that they are looking for funding to complete the required process. We are in direct contact as well with the Superintendent of the C & O Canal who is working with us to solve this piece of the deer problem.
I will keep you informed as I receive additional information.
Green Investor Incentive Program: Passed
If you recall from my last newsletter, I mentioned that I was working on legislation, Bill 40-12, that would encourage the growth of green tech firms here in Montgomery County. With good feedback from my colleagues, and their unanimous support, we created a program, the Green Investor Incentive Program, that should do just that. Montgomery County is now the first county in the nation to have such a law, which should help establish our County as a hotspot for green tech development.
Patterned after a similar program for the biotech industry, and recommended by the County Executive's Green Economy Task Force, this bill provides angel investors in cutting edge Montgomery County green tech firms with matching dollars up to $25,000. Funds for this program were included in the County Executive's budget and tentatively agreed to by our Council. If successful, this program will attract companies with unique ideas that will help us improve the environment and boost our local green economy. That's a win-win.
Update on the Silver Spring Transit Center
Recently, the Washington Post reported that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration (WMATA) wrote to our County to inform us that it had decided not to accept the Silver Spring Transit Center once repairs are completed. Simply put, that is unacceptable and conversations are ongoing on this subject.
When planning began on the Silver Spring Transit Center, the County and WMATA entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, a legally binding document, where the transit agency agreed to take over the center once construction was complete. That MOU also spells out the process for making needed repairs, should they be necessary. Notwithstanding the travails of this project, our County has lived up to its end of the MOU, and I fully expect WMATA to do the same.
The defects by the County's contractors that our County has uncovered can and will be fixed. There is good progress on that front. And it will be fixed in a manner satisfactory to WMATA. So as far as I'm concerned, that should be the end of the story. Our County officials are meeting with WMATA's top people now and I remain hopeful that WMATA will honor its commitments like we have honored ours.
Zoning Code Rewrite
The County is currently in the process of rewriting our Zoning Ordinance, or Zoning Code. For those of you wondering what a zoning code is, it can generally be described as a set of local rules regulating the use and development of property. Zoning ordinances typically divide a community into land use districts or "zones" and specify the allowable uses within each of those zones. For example, some communities, like Montgomery County, divide land into industrial zones, commercial zones, and one or more residential zones.
It has been 33 years since our County's Zoning Code was last comprehensively rewritten in 1977. Based on stakeholder input, it has been pointed out frequently that this 1152 page code is unwieldy and difficult to use. The number of zones has nearly tripled from 41 in 1977 to the current 120. There are over 400 footnotes and over 400 land uses enumerated. The time has come to update and modernize terms and simplify the organization of this document, as well as to clarify provisions that have been unclear. It is also the opportunity to incorporate a commitment to sustainability, address infill and redevelopment, and add more user-friendly features, like graphics, tables, and images.
But change is not always easy and the zoning rewrite process may not be either. However, the process will be a thorough one with many opportunities for vetting and public comment - even before it gets sent over to the Council for consideration. Since 2008, planners from the Montgomery County Planning Department have been working in coordination with other County agencies and a team of nationally-recognized consultants to improve the zoning ordinance.
The revised zoning code has now been drafted, presented to the County's Zoning Advisory Panel (a citizens' panel appointed by the Planning Board) and is available for public viewing and comment. The Planning Board held its public hearings and is now finishing its review of the draft. The Planning Board's approved draft will be sent over to the Council this summer and the Council will hold its public hearing soon thereafter. Once the public hearing is held, the Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee (PHED) will begin reviewing the document.
The Council's public hearing will take place on June 11 at 7:30 PM and the first committee session will be on June 14 at 9:30 AM. To sign up to testify for the public hearing, please call 240-777-7803. All Committee and Council sessions are open to the public and viewable online. For more information, please visit the Planning Department's zoning rewrite website.
Commemorating Accomplishments, Progress, and Victories
As a member of the Montgomery County Council, I have the privilege to present proclamations at our Council Sessions. These proclamations are bestowed by the Council to support the accomplishments of our community, as well as recognize those matters and causes that need our acute awareness. I've had the pleasure of presenting the following proclamations recently:
April 16th: Ependymoma Awareness Day
April 30th: Hockey Club State Champions Churchill HS