I hope this summer report finds you well and that you have managed to endure our record breaking heat wave. I am one of those who believe that our climate has been affected by what we have put in our air, and that these new and ugly weather patterns will persist, which is one of the reasons why I will continue to press hard to make Pepco as reliable as it can be and to make our county as green as it can be.
But it hasn't only been hot outside. It has been hot at the Council. We have had a number of very difficult issues come before us -- reforming our labor laws and disability system as it pertains to our police; Suburban Hospital's expansion; the County Executive's curfew proposal; historic designation for one of District 1's lovely neighborhoods; and emerging land use and zoning issues that will impact our community.
I offer some thoughts on all of these issues, and as always, welcome yours. Take care, stay cool, and enjoy.
Proposed Curfew for Minors
As most of you probably know, several weeks ago our County Executive sent to our Coucil a proposal to establish a curfew for teens uder the age of 18 in our couty. The District of Columbia and Prince George's County have long-standing curfews.
However, as a member of the Public Safety Committee, I was more than a little surprised by this proposal insofar as nothing had been shared with our Committee leading us to believe that we had a very serious problem on our hands that necessitated such a sweeping and dramatic measure. Indeed, the statistics that had been shared with us suggested just the opposite -- that the trend lines were positive, even with respect to gang violence.
But there was a serious incident in Silver Spring that made the County Executive conclude that more dramatic measures are needed. That incident involved scores of youth, some under the age of 18 -- and some older -- from Prince George's County and the District of Columbia that were looking for and finding trouble. The incident resulted in a stabbing. More troubling, given cell phone technology, the gangs were able to disperse and gather again beyond the reach of the police. After conferring with the Police Chief and the Silver Spring business community, the County Executive directed that the legislation be sent to us.
There is no question that as Council President Ervin, the District Councilmember who represents Silver Spring, stated, Silver Spring needs more attention and the people there need to be and feel safe. The business community in Silver Spring in particular is strongly behind the curfew given the investments that they have made, and the new investments such as The Filmore that are about to be realized, and the fear that concerns about public safety will reverse all of the positives that have resulted from the successful revitalization of that part of our community. There is broad agreement that we need to do more to make sure that Silver Spring is a safe place to live, work, and play.
Where there is more debate is on the question of whether the single incident itself justifies a county wide curfew for our teens and whether such a curfew is effective. There certainly has been more than one incident -- there has been an alarming uptick in juvenile crime. But almost all parties agree that it was this July 4th weekend incident that prompted this response. Yet, even here, the gangs gathered before the curfew would have gone into effect, and the ages included a significant number of young people who were 18 or older. So, it has been argued by some that the curfew would not have even prevented this situation from happening. More broadly, there are scores of studies that cast questions on the effectiveness of curfews in bringing down crime -- as well as studies that support them. In addition, there are obvious issues with respect to civil liberties, concerns about racial profiling, the potential negative impact on the local economy, the negative signal it sends to the business community regarding the safety of our community, and the fact that our teens really have no place to go and gather.
I really regret that we did not begin from a shared understanding of the nature of the July 4th incident and the concerns of the Silver Spring community and build up from there by exploring all of the options for addressing those concerns. It may be that a curfew is the right response, but at this point in time, I am certainly not convinced of that. Our Public Safety Committee will hold its first work session in mid-September.
I do solicit your thoughts on this issue. At our public hearing on Tuesday, we heard a wide range of opinions, from our Police Chief telling us that he thinks it would be an important tool to deter teens who cannot gather in either Prince George's or DC from using our community to fight things out; mothers who do not want the government telling them how to raise their children; students and civil libertarians protesting the loss of liberty.
Our County's Relationship with the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)
We have come through, and we are not done, hard economic times in our County. And we have asked our county employees to sacrifice to help us meet our obligation to you. And they have. Not without struggles and hard words, but they have.
Our hardest struggles have been with the union representing our brave men and women who every day protect us on the front lines in our community. In years past, they have bargained for a one tier disability system that was unique in our county, and a previous Council 30 years ago gave them expansive bargaining rights that no police union in the state has. In both cases, these unique arrangements have been shown to be contrary to the public interest.
To our Council's credit, in both instances we reformed these practices to be consistent with the how we treat all other employees, including our other public safety employees such as firefighters.
Our Police Chief in particular strongly endorsed reforming the collective bargaining law. Regrettably, his stance was met with disdain by the FOP, who referred to him as a "bureaucrat" and an inept manager. I believe we have a good and capable Police Chief, and I felt that we could not ignore his strong plea to untie his hands so he could properly manage his department. Under the prior rules of the game, he literally could not instruct his staff to check their county email accounts without "bargaining" the "effects."
I deeply regret that many of our police now feel as though the Council and our County does not respect either them or their important work. We do. But even respecting them and their work could not allow us to turn a blind eye to abuses of our disability system that cost you millions a year or bargaining laws that led to an incredibly inefficient system. It is my hope that in the days and months ahead that we will find a way to engage in a way that is civil and respectful. Just as we are not like Wisconsin and Ohio and other states that have shown such contempt for collective bargaining, we must guard against this "us vs. them" mentality that seems so rampant in our federal government these days. Not here. Not in Montgomery County.
Suburban Hospital is a very important institution to our County. And in order to continue providing quality, state-of-the-art medical services to its patients, Suburban has proposed an expansion that would enhance and update the hospital's facilities. Yet, it sits at the entrance of a long-established neighborhood. Reconciling the needs of the hospital with the desires of the immediately surrounding community has been a difficult challenge, and that is probably one of my bigger understatements.
For more than three years, the neighborhood and the hospital have been involved in litigation over how Suburban should expand. It was the longest hearing ever before our County's Board of Appeals, which rules on these matters. At the end of the day, Suburban's plan was modified by the Board in many important respects to address concerns raised by the community, but not in ways that addressed all of the communities concerns. They appealed that decision, and the court that reviewed the Board's work upheld it. The community has indicated it will appeal again.
Our Council had a limited role in this debate. As part of Suburban's plan, they proposed that Lincoln Street from Old Georgetown Road to Grant Street be "abandoned". That "abandonment" first went to the County Executive, who approved it. In fact, every single independent body that reviewed the issue concluded that the criteria for abandonment was met; our Council staff concurred. Approximately 85% of the traffic that uses the portion of Lincoln Street in question is generated by the hospital, and the remaining streets that touch the community are considered sufficient to address the residual traffic and maintain adequate flow throughout the neighborhood.
As Chair of the T&E Committee, and as the District Councilmember, I reviewed this matter with great care. At the end of the day, the community asked that we assist them in getting a meeting with Suburban to see if common ground could be found even at this late date on some aspects of their expansion. I was pleased to be able to facilitate that outcome during our Council session in which the matter was up for a vote. With that agreement in hand, my colleagues and I voted 9-0 in favor of the abandonment of Lincoln Street, moving Suburban closer to the day that it will have the new facilities that will serve our community.
An Update on Pepco
So far this summer we have been relatively fortunate that our power outages have been kept to a minimum. Knowing that, if you have experienced an outage - blue sky or storm related - you may not agree. But, in fact, so far we have been spared from the mass storm outages of prior years.
That said, I continue to work aggressively to make sure that Pepco reforms its corporate culture and serves its customers as it should in order to become a top performing electric utility. The County has submitted a brief to the Maryland Public Service Commission in its investigation of the company and our brief details in very specific terms the changes that we believe are necessary in order to have Pepco perform as it needs to. In addition, the County has requested that the following remedies be enacted:
� Require that Pepco/PHI's shareholders, not Pepco's customers, bear the cost of improving the quality of its service to at least a "second quartile" reliability level; � Consider reducing Pepco's allowed rate of return on equity and require Pepco to provide certain billing credits to its customers; and � Ultimately, consider modifying Pepco's service territory or revoking Pepco's authority to exercise its franchise.
The Public Service Commission's investigation has revealed that as Pepco's customers experienced the very real impacts of the company's neglect of its infrastructure and ratepayers, the same impacts were not felt by its parent holding company or its shareholders. I, for one, was not surprised when Pepco earned the title of "America's most hated company." Now is the time for our state regulators to use the full scope of their authority to remedy this unacceptable behavior by a regulated utility. Our County deserves and expects no less.
One area that Pepco has been extremely active in is tree trimming. After failing to perform adequate tree trimming for years, Pepco suddenly started trimming everywhere, sometimes with alarming results. As Chair of the Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy, and Evironmentt (T&E) Committee, I convened a briefing to look at Pepco's tree trimming policies and practices. The testimony that was provided at the briefing exposed a glaring hole in the oversight responsibilities for Pepco's tree trimming program. The Public Service Commission does not guide Pepco's hand in this instance, and I believe the time may have come for a codification of best practices in our County code so that citizens can be assured that our trees are being protected and properly trimmed, that our citizens know their rights when Pepco seeks to trim their trees, and that the information Pepco provides home owners about their tree practices is overseen by the County and its arborists.
Cedar Lane Bridge
Well, it is almost here: the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) resulting in the opening of the new National Naval Medical Center facility in Bethesda is on track for a September 2011 opening. Over time this will mean the addition of 2500 employees and there is the potential for up to a million visitors a year. Some improvements related to the expansion are already completed or currently underway. The Battery Lane bicycle path improvements are completed. The Cedar Lane Bridge will remain closed until August 24, 2011 in order for improvements to the integrity of the bridge to be finalized. I have also been working with the Coquelin Run community and DOT on implementing some traffic-calming measures on Jones Bridge Road as well.
From the very beginning, I argued that it was the federal government's responsibility, specifically the Department of Defense, to provide the funds that are necessary to address the impact this critically important facility will have on surrounding communities. To that end, I am very pleased that Team Maryland, Senators Mikulski and Cardin and Congressman Van Hollen, have delivered on an appropriation of $300 million for transportation infrastructure improvements at medical care facilities affected by BRAC. This was a huge win for us. Through the Office of Economic Adjustment at DoD, these funds will be allocated nationally with the improvements around National Navy Medical anticipated to receive over $100 million. Bethesda projects competing for these Federal dollars include the pedestrian tunnel under Rt. 355 and the deep elevators designed to move people from the Metro to the hospital quickly and safely.
The County has redesigned its website to provide the most comprehensive and up to date information on the transportation improvement plans, the construction schedules, road closures and much more. I hope you will take the time to visit the BRAC website to learn more and to help you navigate through these challenging construction projects.
A Decision for Greenwich Forest
After many years of hard work, the application for historical designation status by the Greenwich Forest Citizens Association was approved unaimously by the Council in late June. Because of the very nature of such a designation and the inherent impact to private property owners, the Council spent a great deal of time on the proposal and, at one point, deferred action on the designation in order for the community to work towards greater consensus.
After some significant strife and toil (hopefully worth it in the end), the community came through and returned to the Council with a set of guidleines that did just that. The new guidelines, approved by the Council, were the result of many conversations and compromises among neighbors that could be supported by most, if not all, of the community's residents.
I tip my hat to all those community members who kept at this, who believed a consensus could be reached, and to those who never stopped talking to their neighbors despite some tension and disagreements. I think it will all pay off in the long run as residents realize they will be able enjoy the integrity of this beautiful neighborhood for generations to come.
Commercial-Residential Zone Update
My colleagues on the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee have been busy this summer reviewing the Planning Board's recommended amendments to the CR Zone. I know that some of you have serious concerns about the proposed changes and I assure you that I will look at all facets of the zone when it comes before the full Council this fall after the PHED Committee finishes its work and makes its recommendations.
The CR Zone was originally approved for use in the recently adopted White Flint Sector Plan, and my colleagues and I spent a great deal of time reviewing the zone at that time. I suspect the same will be true with the changes proposed in ZTA (Zoning Text Amendment) 11-01. These changes, in the form of the CRN Zone and CT Zone are currently planned for use in the Kensington, Wheaton, and Takoma-Langley master/sector plans. I think it is important to note that these zones have not been recommended for any other areas of the County at this time - only the three plans currently under review.
A variety of concerns regarding ZTA 11-01 have been expressed to me. One of the greatest concerns involves the appropriate zoning for areas immediately adjacent to current residential neighborhoods. These types of concerns are quite understandable and I will look at this set of issues carefully when they come before me.
My colleagues and I will also closely examine the incentive density requirements for developers, the sketch plan and site plan requirements, and the potential changes to the special exception process. We will also consider which elements of the ZTA should - and should not - be retroactive. I, for one, am not inclined to support any retroactive changes to the CR Zone approved for White Flint.
While I am not ready to opine on all of the details of ZTA 11-01 or the CRN and CT Zones, I can promise you a few things: 1) I respect the integrity of our existing master plans and will do what is necessary to protect that integrity and 2) I will continue to work to preserve the beautiful single family neighborhoods enjoyed by so many in the County.
Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan
I am told that Planning Department staff may have a draft of the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan ready for the Planning Board's review in late September. Many in the Chevy Chase area have been following this sector plan process carefully, and rightly so.
My own role has been limited to conveying to the Planning Board the need for a transparent and open process led by the staff, and I was gratified that the process has been just that. Given that I will be called upon to review and act upon the final product, my colleagues and I generally do not take hard stances before that time. However, I have been asked whether I believe this project must be firmly linked to construction of the Purple Line, and my answer is most definitely yes. And I always believe that the project must be "context sensitive" - in other words, it must be a good neighbor.
Earlier this summer, Planning staff released some preliminary recommendations for the heights and densities that may be allowed in the plan, but that is about all that is known at this time. After the sector plan is fully drafted, a public hearing will be held by the Planning Board who will carefully review the plan and revise it as appropriate before it comes to the Council. My best guess is that the Council will receive the Board's recommended plan in the early winter and the PHED Committee will being its review at that time.
While I am more than happy to hear from residents about the Chevy Chase Lake plan, if you are interested in weighing in on the draft in progress, I would highly encourage you to write directly to the Planning Board at this time as they, as a body, will have the first opportunity to make changes they deem necessary and appropriate. You can email the Planning Board firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Escalators for Bethesda Metro
I am pleased to report to you that Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has announced plans to replace the three escalators at the Bethesda metro station. Anyone who uses this station knows that escalator failures have become more of a rule than the exception, and that a long-term solution is overdue.
I extend a hearty thank you to Mr. Sarles for acknowledging that WMATA can do better by their customers by making the capital investment necessary to ensure safe, reliable access to the station for all Metro riders.
In addition to the many voices of WMATA riders, there have been several strong adovcates for the escalator replacements including the Bethesda Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and members of our Maryland Delegation. I am grateful for their support and advocacy which has led to this positive turn of events.
Bethesda Post Office to Consolidate Retail Operations
The US Postal Service has announced plans to close and consolidate the Wisconsin Avenue and Arlington Road post offices and reopen a new retail post office somewhere else in downtown Bethesda.
This past Wednesday, the Postal Service held a community meeting to discuss their preliminary plans and solicit input from residents. Those present expressed some concerns and suggestions that reflected a shared desire to retain a post office in downtown Bethesda that is accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists and that, if possible, offers some on site parking. I support those desires and will be conveying those shared goals to the Postal Service as well.
Public input is sought by USPS for a thirty day period which began the night of the meeting and will end Friday, August 26th. Suggestions can be sent to Mr. Dennis Perry at email@example.com or Dennis Perry, Real Estate Specialist Eastern Facilities Service Office United States Postal Service P.O. Box 27498 Greensboro, NC 27498-1103.
I will share any updates USPS provides me in my upcoming newsletters so stay tuned.
Odds and Ends
SunTrust Bank Robberies: Detectives from the Montgomery County Police Major Crimes Division - Robbery Section believe they have linked the same, unknown suspect to two, armed robberies of the SunTrust Bank located at 9812 Falls Road in Potomac. The first bank robbery occurred on January 7, 2011, and the second bank robbery occurred on July 21, 2011.Detectives investigating the two bank robberies noticed the similarity in the suspect description and the suspect modus operandi. Surveillance photographs of the suspect obtained from the robberies led detectives to believe that the two robberies are linked to the same, unknown suspect. Detectives are asking anyone who has information about the bank robberies and/or the suspect to call the Robbery Section at 240-773-5100.
Pay By Cell Parking Now Available: Cell phones can now be used to pay for parking at nearly 10,730 meters in all four County Parking Lot Districts with the recent conversion of 129 County parking meters in Montgomery Hills. Bethesda's 5,250 parking meters were completed in March, Silver Spring's 4,520 parking meters in May, and Wheaton's 830 meters earlier this month. Another 1,089 meters were expected to be completed this month in North Bethesda. To use pay-by-cell, first-time patrons should register for the program by going online anytime here or by calling 301-830-7074.
Board of Appeals Vacancies: The Montgomery County Council is seeking applicants for two four-year terms on the County Board of Appeals. The terms of Stan Boyd (Democrat) and David Perdue (declined to affiliate) expire in September 2011, and both are eligible for reappointment. Mr. Boyd has indicated that he will apply for reappointment. Applications for the position must be received no later than 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7 and should be sent to the County Council at 100 Maryland Avenue, Rockville MD 20850.
Smart Meter Installation: Pepco has begun installing advanced digital electric meters, also referred to as smart meters, throughout its Maryland service area. The meter exchange program is the first step in the utility's long-term investment to build a smart power grid that will help customers better manage their energy use and costs and improve customer service and reliability.Crews will continue with the installation process through December 2012.
Metro Releases Track Work Schedule: Earlier this month, WMATA released a major track work calendar that details its construction plans through this fiscal year. The calendar establishes the accelerated work plan to address NTSB recommendations and to get projects done quickly and safely, while inconveniencing fewer customers. The calendar - available here - shows the date, affected stations, busing plan and a description of the work to be performed.
Charter Review Commission Seeks Resident Input: The Commission is requesting the views of residents, civic groups, organizations, County agencies, employees, and other individuals on how County government operates and what Charter revisions could make government work more effectively. Suggestions and comments should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by October 31.
Do You Know About BUP? The Bethesda Urban Partnership markets and maintains downtown Bethesda, produces events for the community, and manages Bethesda Transportation Solutions, Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District and the free Bethesda Circulator. Under the fantastic leadership of Dave Dabney, I believe BUP contributes to the vibrancy of Bethesda in a big, big way. Visit their website for upcoming events and attractions at bethesda.org.