Everything seems to be heating up -- the weather and our Council agenda (and let's hope the Nats!).
I for one was pleased with the President's Climate Action Plan and its emphasis of addressing existing coal fired power plants. In our county, the coal fired power plant at Dickerson is -- all by itself -- responsible for approximately a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Measures that will reduce these emissions will make our county a healthier place to live.
In the meantime, we are working hard to make sure that we save trees, bike more, and have more transit options. At the same time, we are in the midst of major land use related issues like the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan and the extraordinarily complex rewrite of our extraordinarily complex zoning code. Plus, we are doing good things to help our homeless and helping those who live in historic properties.
And that is just a few of the things going on .....I wish all of you a great Fourth of July. Have fun and be safe!
Increasing the Historic Preservation Tax Credit
I am co-sponsoring Expedited Bill 14-13, which makes a larger tax credit available to home owners making historic improvements on their homes.
Previously, the maximum percentage of improvements eligible for a tax credit under state law was 10%. That state law was amended this past spring to allow counties to increase that number up to 25%. This legislation will do just that, and it will take effect right away.
We have heard in the past that the imposition of historic designation does come at a cost to affected property owners. This measure seeks to rebalance that equation just a bit. I hope that many of my constituents in Somerset, Chevy Chase, Greenwich Forest, and Kensington will consider taking advantage of this tax credit as they make repairs and improvements to their homes.
Planning Committee Finishes Review of Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan Full Council Worksession on July 9
For those of you following the Chevy Chase lake Sector Plan, I want to provide you a few updates. First, the Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee (PHED) finished its review of the Planning Board's recommendations on Monday. The Plan will now go to a full Council worksession the morning of Tuesday, July 9. You can attend this worksession in person, watch it live on Montgomery County Cable Television, or view it at your convenience on the Council website.
Although I am not a member of the PHED Committee, I attended both worksessions and listened in attentively. Chair of the Committee, Councilmember Nancy Floreen and Committee Members Councilmembers Elrich and Leventhal discussed the transportation issues surrounding the plan and discussed each property and made recommendations for heights, densities and zoning on each parcel. I will share a few of their recommendations with you.
Chevy Chase Lake East Shopping Center
The Chevy Chase land Company holds a pre-existing approval to redevelop now under commercial zoning. The Committee recommended mixed-use zoning on this property with 80 feet maximum heights on the property except the southwestern portion where they recommended a maximum height of 120 feet. The floor area ratio (FAR) or density is 2.0. Rezoning would take place upon adoption of the Sector Plan (Stage 1). Planning Board and Council staff's analysis is that the traffic generated by the new development will be no greater than the development plans previously approved in 2005.
The Committee recommended that this property be rezoned only in Stage 2. In addition, they recommended height of 45 feet and setbacks of a minimum of 35 feet, and buffering/landscaping between the garden apartments and single-family homes.
The Committee recommended Stage 2 zoning with a height of 150 feet on the western portion of the site and 125 feet on the eastern portion of the site and an FAR of 4.0. This parcel currently houses a 150 foot building that would need to be torn down if redevelopment were to occur.
Chevy Chase Lake West Shopping Center / 8402 CT
The Committee recommended maximum heights of 70 feet in Stage 2 with an FAR of 1.0.
Loughborough Place Parking Lot
The Committee recommended maximum height of 40 feet with an FAR of 1.0.
The Committee recommended rezoning for residential zoning for Stage 2. This recommendation is for a more recent proposal which reduces the amount of units from 335 as recommended by the Planning Board Draft to 270 units, including a substantial increase in affordable housing units. The Committee recommendation also limits heights on the eastern portion of the site to 50 feet instead of the 65 feet recommended in the Planning Board Draft Plan (which would result in townhomes instead of garden apartments) and increases the FAR on the western portion of the site from 1.5 FAR to 2.0.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
The Committee recommended maximum heights of 65 feet and 0.5 FAR for this property in Stage 1.
At my request, staff provided an analysis of the incremental impact of the new development on intersections that will be failing regardless of new development because of the through traffic traveling down Connecticut Ave. I felt it was important that the community understand just how much "worse" this development will make the current situation. Accordingly to our staff, what the numbers tell us is that the new development will add approximately five seconds of delay. However, staff is recommending a series of improvements to the road network that would have to be accomplished (and paid for by the developers) for the developments to move forward. Those improvements would reduce the travel time by considerably more time than any potential development would add. In other words, based on our staff's analysis, from a traffic perspective only, having the developers pay for the improvements more than offsets the added traffic it would generate.
I have met with many members of the Chevy Chase community as well as several of the land owners in the sector plan and am weighing all the arguments carefully as we approach the full Council session on July 8. Central to my deliberations are two questions: 1) What are the policy goals of this plan and how can we best achieve them? and 2) How can we achieve those goals while respecting the character of the community and enhancing the quality of life for the existing neighborhoods? In addition, I have been conversing with our professional staff about issues like economic viability, traffic mitigation strategies, and public amenities. Just today, I sent a memo to our Council staff seeking clarification on some issues central to my decision making on this plan. Take a look.
Before the worksession, I encourage you to express your views with me and my colleagues. It is never too late to weigh in. In the meantime, I will continue to do my due diligence on this sector plan. I am just one councilmember of nine, but I promise you that my votes on this plan will be well-researched and carefully considered.
The Planning Board is currently reviewing the Staff Draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, a component of our Master Plan of Highways, which includes recommendations for a rapid transit network, establishment of Bicycle & Pedestrian Priority Areas, and MARC Brunswick Line expansion.
The Planning Board will likely make its recommendations to the Council by the end of July. I encourage you to attend the Planning Board's work sessions and listen to their discussions. If you can't attend in person, you can always watch the Planning Board's worksessions on their website either live or at a later date. The Planning Board has already held a few worksessions on this plan and is tentatively scheduled to discuss the Master Plan again on July 11 and 22. Just like at the Council, all Planning Board sessions are open to the public and available for viewing on the Planning Board's website.
If you haven't already, I hope you will take some time to read the draft of the rapid transit network proposed by the County's Planning Staff or about Bus Rapid transit systems generally on the National BRT Institute website. I have also included a fact sheet I created below in order to provide you more information about rapid transit, our County's planning process, and some answers to frequently asked questions.
I will be back in touch with you this fall when the Council begins its review of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan. In the meantime, I want you to know that I appreciate all the comments I have been receiving, will take them into consideration, and encourage you to contact my office should you have any further questions or concerns. My staff and I will do our best to address them.
Q: What do RTV and BRT mean?
The acronym RTV stands for rapid transit vehicles and BRT is bus rapid transit. RTV and BRT systems often have dedicated guideways or lanes, visible and permanent stations, and frequent, reliable service. A high quality RTV network utilizes specialized vehicles that can significantly improve an area's mobility, while offering the flexibility to meet future transit demands. There are best practices to be found across the country and around the world in places like Cleveland, Ohio, Eugene, Oregon, York Region, Canada, and Bogota, Columbia.
Q: What are the benefits of an RTV system?
Adding another layer of transit options for county residents is beneficial for environmental, economic and quality-of-life reasons. First, traffic and gridlock are an ever increasing threat to our quality of life in the county. And studies show that roadway congestion is predicted to increase by 70% by 2040. We need to do something to preserve and enhance mobility throughout the county. Doing nothing is not an option.
Second, more people taking transit will improve the environmental health of our communities. By providing attractive alternatives, some people will choose to leave their cars at home and this will benefit everyone by reducing local air pollution from car emissions, a major contributor to climate change.
Finally, an RTV system is an investment in our economic future. A region with varied, attractive, reliable transportation options and good mobility is an attractive region in which to live and do business. DC, Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax are all building new transit systems. A healthy economy is vital to our county's future if we are going to sustain the level of services enjoyed by our residents.
Q: What would make RTV a more attractive choice for residents who could otherwise drive?
The existing buses all ride in lanes shared with all the other traffic so they move slowly, even more slowly than cars because they need to make many stops. Additionally, most have infrequent service, require cumbersome transfers and are often crowded and uncomfortable. While Metrorail runs frequently, its service is focused on getting into Washington DC rather than around the county. High quality RTV would allow residents to move around the county on a transit system that's reliable, not stuck in general traffic and runs with sufficient frequency. The proposed system is a complete network of north-south and east-west routes designed to move people from where they live to where they work. This system would attract new transit riders, not just those who currently ride the bus, by making it a desirable alternative to driving in stop and go traffic. In other areas of the country, these types of lines - not even systems - have dramatically increased ridership. The new Orange Line in Los Angeles County increased ridership by 51%. Ridership on the Cleveland "Health Line" increased 60% over the bus line it replaced.
Q: What is happening now to advance the RTV system and how can I follow the issues and participate in the process?
Montgomery's Planning Board is now reviewing the Public Hearing Draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan. This is an update to our Master Plan of Highways, which hasn't been done in a comprehensive manner since 1955. The purpose of this exercise is to assess which corridors are most appropriate for rapid transit, providing an initial indication of where station's should be located, and what right of ways need to be dedicated for such a purpose. The Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment Committee and our full Council will take up the Planning Board's recommendations in the fall after public hearings and numerous work sessions. If the Council does approves this master plan, with revisions as deemed fit by the Council, it effectively becomes our County policy that rapid transit is in our future. It is a necessary precondition to the extensive work that would follow - figuring out how to pay for it, designing the routes with much greater specificity, and whether and how the network should be phased in. All of these decisions would be made with extensive public input.
Q: What will be the impacts to my neighborhood?
That will vary from one route to the next, but generally, the Public Hearing Draft does not call for significant road widenings and in many corridors, does not require any widening at all. Not all areas need two-directional dedicated lanes. In some areas, it may be worthwhile to repurpose a lane for short distances that is currently used for cars. In other areas, the RTV may have to travel in the car lanes along with the cars for a limited distance. Each area/route will require specific, appropriate solutions. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Every corridor will need a different design that will involve extensive community input throughout the design.
In general, the RTV vehicles should be cleaner and quieter than the multitude of cars currently on the road, and where dedicated curb lanes are present, it should be easier, not harder for cars to egress from their neighborhood roads onto major RTV corridors.
Q: Why don't we simply add on to Metrorail?
It's too expensive. Adding additional heavy rail (like Metrorail) costs about $250million dollars/mile to construct and light rail costs about $75-125 million/mile. Building new roads are also quite costly. For example, it costs between $30 - 100 million to construct a single roadway interchange. The cost of building a rapid transit system is approximately $17 million per mile and in many cases much less expensive when existing rights of way are used. We can build a high quality RTV system with many high quality attributes of Metrorail at a far lower overall cost.
Q: Why would we implement RTV in corridors where we already have Metro service?
Even with the addition of eight car trains (which the Planning Department assumes in its traffic modeling), studies still show strong ridership for a RTV system. In addition, an RTV can provide more frequent service at shorter intervals, with stations in between Metro stops in some cases. Additionally, RTV can provide useful east-west corridors connecting red line stations. A RTV network would complement, not supplant, our existing transit infrastructure. Passengers would be able to use the same payment system like the smart trip card and transfer smoothly between the two systems.
Q: We already have lots of buses - both Ride On, WMATA (Metro) buses, and even school buses. What would happen to them? How are the new vehicles different?
Existing Ride On routes would be reconfigured to offer shorter routes that would move people from the neighborhoods to the RTV lines, providing faster, more frequent and more reliable service. The RTV lines during rush hour would run with the frequency you'd expect of a rail system so that wait times at stations are minimized. WMATA buses that currently serve proposed RTV routes could operate in the dedicated lanes as could some Ride-On routes. School buses could also be allowed to use the dedicated lanes.
The new rapid transit vehicles would be different than our current Ride-On and Metro buses. They would be sleeker (more like a tram than a bus) and offer a very comfortable rider experience. Rapid transit vehicles can be very quiet, run on clean alternative fuels thus reducing emissions, and provide ground level boarding (no stairs) for quicker boarding and exiting. See below for examples of RTV vehicles used in other communities.
Q: How will the county pay for this? Will we get state and federal funding?
As with most, if not all, capital projects, planning comes first. When design and engineering work is finished on part or all of an approved system, financing options will be carefully considered. The funding mechanism will be chosen by the Executive and Council only after a thorough exploration of practical solutions, including the pursuit of state and federal funding sources, and a broad public discussion, which will include public hearings.
All major transportation projects come with a cost, but the cost of doing nothing is much greater - ever increasing congestion, pollution, degraded quality of life and lost economic opportunity. Most of our transportation dollars have been spent almost exclusively on roads and as we move forward, we need to provide a more balanced transportation system. In the future, if congestion is not addressed to some extent with transit, then we face more road-only solutions that will require more road widening and more grade separated inter-changes. There is no scenario where the status quo will remain unchanged. So we can either manage change in a way that lessens the impact on our communities or we will get buried in traffic.
Q: How rapid are the rapid transit vehicles?
No more rapid than the speed limit. Rapid transit vehicles must obey the speed limit on all roads and stop at all traffic signals, but will get to their destination faster if the vehicle is in a dedicated lane or guideway.
Q: Will bicycle and pedestrian improvements be implemented along with RTV corridors?
Yes. The Planning Staff has recommended that the areas around major transit stations and other transfer points be designated Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Areas. Sidewalks are included in all typical roadway sections used to determine the necessary rights-of-way and median pedestrian refuges would be provide to ensure safe crossing opportunities. Any bicycle accommodation already in our master plans is accommodated in the plan; on-road bike lanes would be accommodated in additional areas where possible; and where there are constraints to providing bike accommodation in the typical section, alternative accommodation is identified.
A RTV system should be safer for bicyclist and pedestrians because there would be fewer cars on the roads. All rapid transit vehicles will stop at traffic lights just like cars and pedestrian crossings of our corridors will be given full consideration.
Bikeshare: Getting Close!
Earlier this week, DOT staff hosted a meeting in Bethesda to get feedback from the community on 15 proposed station locations in Friendship Heights, Bethesda, and Medical Center. There are another 15 stations planned for Silver Spring and Takoma Park, and another 20 planned for Rockville/Shady Grove. DOT is hosting separate meetings in those areas, as well.
Staff collected feedback and concerns from those in attendance, and will consider this input as they finalize station locations. If you have feedback on any of the proposed locations you see on the map, please feel free to email me and I will be sure to relay your message to DOT. Or you can email them directly, here.
DOT is aiming for a September launch of the Montgomery County network. Capital Bikeshare has been an overwhelming regional success, and I look forward to Montgomery County getting on board.
Roadside Tree Bill Passes Out of Committee
I have always believed the government must take the lead in protecting our natural assets, including trees. As you may know, my colleague Marc Elrich and I have been working on legislation that would provide the County's Department of Permitting Services the authority it needs to protect our trees in County rights of way. The Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee, which I chair, recommended approval of that legislation to the full Council earlier this week.
Today, the trees in our County's rights of way are subject to state control pursuant to a 1914 law. I have never understood -- almost a hundred years later -- when our County clearly has a much greater interest in protecting our own assets than the state does, why this structure makes any sense. But, there it is, and the state has made it clear that they have no intention of relinquishing their authority.
So, the bill that I have worked on very hard (it has set a record of 16 drafts!) essentially builds on the County's existing authority to make sure that any work done in our rights of way is done in a manner that protects our trees. And if a tree must come down, the bill requires a 3:1 replacement ratio -- which is much stricter than the state law.
Many environmental groups, citizens associations, residents, and County agencies supported this bill and I would like to thank them for all their hard work.
Zoning Rewrite Review Underway
The Council recently held its public hearing on the Zoning Rewrite. We heard testimony from sixty individuals, either representing themselves, homeowners associations, civic organizations, businesses, non-profits or developers. Some felt the zoning rewrite represents a step forward for the county, making our zoning code easier to understand and more appropriate for shaping our future. Others expressed concerns regarding proposed changes that they feel pose a threat to the integrity of our residential neighborhoods, including a broader adoption of our Commercial Residential zone throughout our county, parking standards, rules about animals in residential zones and special exceptions, and a host of other issues.
I have heard from numerous others who have written into me and I expect the correspondence will keep coming! I take all the comments and suggestions very seriously and will take them into consideration as the Council reviews the ordinance. It is an extremely complex document that our Council will take many months to digest and act upon.
The Council is just beginning its review of this proposed revision to our zoning ordinance. The Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee (PHED) began its worksessions on Friday, June 14 and 21. Three members of the Council sit on this committee: Councilmembers Nancy Floreen (Chair), Marc Elrich, and George Leventhal. Additional PHED Committee worksessions are currently scheduled for 6/28, 7/2, 7/12, 7/19, and 7/26, but I expect the Committee's work to continue into the fall. The public is welcome to attend all Council sessions or if you prefer, you can watch them live on the Council website or at your convenience at a later date. If you have specific questions or concerns that you would like the Committee to take up at these worksessions, I encourage you to contact their offices directly.
Once the PHED Committee finishes its deliberations and makes their recommendations, the full Council will then hold its worksessions this fall before voting on the revised ordinance. We will spend several months reviewing the zoning rewrite and will take all the time we need to understand and evaluate all the issues raised by residents as well as those who do business in the county.
In the meantime, my staff and I will be following the Committee's work closely. Feel free to call my office should you have further questions or comments. Given the importance of this issue, I have tasked my Chief of Staff, Cindy Gibson, to staff this issue for me, and she is available should you wish to discuss your concerns further.
Two New Post Offices in District 1
The United States Postal Service is looking for a location for another Bethesda Post Office and for a new location to replace the post office currently located in White Flint Mall.
I am told that USPS is looking to have a full service post office location in Bethesda, specifically the 20816 area. The services, as well as the parking and accessibility offered at the store, will be determined when a final location is identified. For the White Flint post office, facilities specialists are looking for 1,200 square feet of retail-only space as close to the current location as possible, according to USPS.
To kick off the site-selection process for the White Flint relocation, a community meeting to explain the site selection process is planned for 4:30 p.m. July 10 at the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center at 5900 Executive Blvd.
As you may know, our Council has recently taken up legislation that I have sponsored with three of my colleagues to narrow the scope of the County's tax on bags. When the original bag tax was first introduced, I led our Council's deliberations over this measure and I am proud to have done so. It has produced significant environmental benefits.
However, I have always had misgivings about the scope of the law. When the initial bag tax was introduced, the Council was told that it was the recommendation of one of the sponsors of the DC measure, after which Montgomery County patterned its law, to learn from its mistake and not focus just on retail food establishments, but to include all retail establishments. As a result, the Montgomery County law includes not just the Giants, Safeways, and convenience stores, but also hair salons, jewelry stores, and clothing stores. No other jurisdiction has adopted such a sweeping approach to this issue.
My goal has always been to help bring about a shift in our collective consciousness that recognizes how easy it is to use reusable bags, rather than plastic bags in particular. Using reusable bags at the grocery store is a habit that most of us can adopt -- and based on my personal experience, many of us are doing just that. I continue to believe that grocery stores, convenience stores, and other stores that sell a significant amount of food are reasonable places to expect us to use a reusable bag.
However, expecting people to bring a reusable bag into a clothing store, pet store, or department store strikes many of our residents as a bridge too far. My concern is that by applying the law so broadly, instead of shifting consciousness in a positive way, it does the opposite -- it breeds resentment. This resentment undermines our County's capacity to do more to help the environment. I want to preserve our political capital for when we need it most, and not expend it on what I consider very marginal environmental gains. I have seen very little evidence that our streams are littered with department store bags. I have also received data from the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection showing that the vast majority of bags in the County are sold by vendors who will still be required to charge for bags.
I believe that by trimming this law, we are in fact strengthening it. Importantly, I believe that by focusing on the stores that pose the greatest threat to our streams, we increase the likelihood that other jurisdictions will feel more comfortable in embracing the good work we are doing. I certainly hope so.
I made a few remarks on this measure when the Council held a public hearing on it a few weeks ago. You can see my remarks here, starting at the 2:00 mark.
Montgomery County Joins the 100,000 Homes Campaign
If you've ever spent some time in Downtown Bethesda, you've probably noticed that, unfortunately, chronic homelessness is a real problem for some of our County's most vulnerable residents. Organizations like Bethesda Cares and the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless do a tremendous job working with these individuals to find out more about their circumstances and how they can be helped.
Last week, I spent an hour at Bethesda Cares listening in as more than a dozen homeless men and women shared their feelings with a therapist. It was a very moving experience. Some told how much it hurts to have people be so disrespectful to them; others how they own that their situation is a result of the choices they made; some expressed great hope because a few of the homeless were finding homes; and one homeless man who found a home after years of homelessness expressed a fear of his new surroundings.
So, you can understand why I am very pleased that Montgomery County is participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national effort that takes a housing first approach to reducing homelessness. Together with its participating jurisdictions, the 100,000 Homes Campaign has housed 50,000 formerly homeless individuals.
One critical element to the work of the 100,000 Homes Campaign is conducting surveys to assess the medical vulnerability of the homeless population in a given area. The Campaign and its partners in the County will be conducting a county-wide survey later this fall, November 4-6.
They will need at least 300 volunteers to organize and conduct the survey. If you are interested in volunteering, click here.