Tom’s Newsletter – October 2018

Dear Friend,

More school bus cameras. Widening the Beltway. Solar energy for businesses. Wineries, breweries and distilleries in the Agricultural Reserve. Cellphone towers. These are just a few of the issues the County Council has been working on this fall. By working together — and keeping our constituents’ interests foremost in our discussions — we’re making significant progress.

School bus cameras: A worthwhile investment

School bus cameras save lives — our kids’ lives. As the sponsor of the original state school bus camera law when I I was a delegate in Annapolis, I’m glad we’re allocating an additional $4.7 million to ensure that all our buses have these cameras, which capture the dangerous drivers who blow right past stopped school buses. The numbers are truly shocking.

In fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, more than 34,400 citations were issued. That works out to an astounding 189 violations per school day.

That so many drivers would endanger our vulnerable schoolchildren on a daily basis is horrifying.

The good news is that as more buses get the cameras, the average number of citations per bus has dropped. That’s partly because the initial installations were on buses on the most problematic routes.

In fact, three of the four most problem areas are in our District 5, according to county police: the 8800 block of Colesville Road near Georgia Avenue and the 1400 block of East West Highway near Colesville Road, both in downtown Silver Spring; and the 8800 block of Piney Branch Road near the intersection with University Boulevard.

Currently, 500 of our public school buses have camera systems, with 400 more to be outfitted by the end of this year. The expectation is that all 1,350 buses will have the systems by the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Each bus has 14 cameras: seven exterior cameras in the enforcement box on the driver's side to capture violations; three additional exterior cameras covering the front, back and other side of the bus; and four interior cameras.

Last year, the fines were raised from $125 to $250 per violation. In comparison, a ticket issued by a police officer carries a $570 fine, plus three points on the driver’s license.

In exchange for installing the camera systems for free, the vendor retains all the fine revenues to recoup its initial $18 million investment. More information is here:

Concerns about plans to widen the Beltway

We need sensible, environmentally friendly, long-term solutions to the transportation challenges we all face daily. That’s why I’m speaking out against the State Highway Administration’s refusal to attend last month’s council briefing to explain and answer our questions about Gov. Larry Hogan’s plans to possibly widen the Capital Beltway through Montgomery County.

Many of you, like me, are worried about the massive disruptions this project could cause, as adding four lanes would require taking private property — something that Gov. Hogan has promised won’t happen.

Gov. Hogan is playing politics here. This year, he announced big plans to relieve congestion on the Beltway and I-270. Yet he’s leaving all the details — including an explanation of how to widen the Beltway without taking private property — until after the election.

Some — including me — also question the wisdom of investing billions of dollars into expanding our highways, when other traffic solutions, such as mass transit, are more environmentally friendly and would do much more to help the county meet our goal of zero carbon emissions by 2035. After all, the overriding problem isn’t moving cars — it’s moving people.

The good news from our briefing with County Council and planning staff is that, while the council doesn’t have a direct say in the state’s plans, the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission does, because it owns a significant portion of the land on which the Beltway sits.

And because M-NCPPC is a state agency, it would be much more difficult for the highway administration to take its property by eminent domain.

Our planning officials told us at the briefing that they would ensure the council has a voice in their actions as this process unfolds in the coming months.

Helping more businesses switch to solar power

I’m proud to report that the council unanimously approved the zoning text amendment I introduced that’s designed to make it easier for businesses to install solar energy panels on their property.

This zoning change will help us meet our goal of eliminating carbon emissions by 2035, along with the ZTA I initiated this spring allowing community solar projects for residents who can’t have their own solar panels. READ MORE

This new regulation exempts accessory use solar projects from the costly and lengthy site plan process.

Too often, the cost of the site plan process can outweigh the benefits of adding solar panels to a property.

Many of our businesses want to participate more in the new green economy, for both financial and environmental reasons, and now they can.

The zoning change applies only to properties zoned for commercial, employment, industrial and mixed-use without residential.

More information is here:

Wineries, breweries can help farmers

Our county’s agricultural sector is an important part of our economy.
All told, we have 540 farms and 350 horticultural businesses, with most of our farms being family-run operations employing more than 10,000. Many are in our 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve. And together, they contribute almost $300 million annually to our economy.

But many are struggling, and a zoning change that the County Council unanimously OK’d on Oct. 2 will help them establish commercial wineries, breweries and distilleries as accessory uses and host tasting rooms and events. READ MORE

There were two major sticking points in the zoning text amendment that we were able to resolve.

One concerned how much of the farming operation needs to be directly related to the winery, brewery, distillery or cider-making operation. While it’s easier for wineries to rely on their own vineyards for the bulk of their grapes, it’s more difficult for breweries and distilleries. For example, sufficient quantities of ingredients such as hops and grains used to produce beer and liquor need to be grown off-site at this point.

The other concern was the size and frequency of events — such as parties and wedding receptions — that these facilities will be allowed to host. One goal of establishing our Ag Reserve was to preserve the bucolic nature of this vast swath of the Upcounty.

Obviously, allowing frequent, large events with hundreds and hundreds of visitors would degrade the reserve, but this zoning change strikes a balance that helps foster the survival of these farms, keeps the Ag Reserve sustainable and maintains its invaluable and pastoral presence in our county.

More information is here:

Second annual Job Fair draws hundreds

More than 700 job-seekers came with their tweaked resumes and interview skills to the second annual East County Regional Job Fair at the East County Community Recreation Center on Oct. 17 in Silver Spring.

Again, I was proud to work with U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, County Executive Isiah Leggett, WorkSource Montgomery and others to present the fair. The goal: Bring down East County’s high unemployment rate, which is much higher than the overall county rate, and help meet employers’ workforce needs.

Representatives from many federal, state, county and private-sector employers attended, met with job-seekers and held workshops. My thanks to them again for making the fair so successful.

Helping Charlie Koiner and urban farmers

Urban farming may sound oxymoronic, but it’s a reality in our county: Just ask 98-year-old Charlie Koiner of Silver Spring.

I’m glad I was able to help Charlie hang onto his downtown farm, by reducing his property taxes through an urban-farming credit I shepherded through the County Council last year. The credit saved Charlie $14,000 in the first year. In the current edition of Montgomery Magazine, read Charlie’s story of growing up in Montgomery County in a different era — and how a group of residents is working to ensure his legacy lives on through the Charles Koiner Center for Urban Farming:

Thank you for your continued trust and confidence! It is an honor to represent and serve you on the County Council. I can’t succeed without your continued guidance and support!

Please don’t hesitate to share your views, invite me to your community meetings in your neighborhood, your PTA, your social club or your church, synagogue or mosque. And of course, let me know if I can be helpful with any constituent services. You can reach me at my office at 240-777-7960 or at , or, for urgent matters, at my cell, 240-481-4825.