I'm knocking on wood here, but given that it is almost St. Patrick's Day, I think it's safe to give thanks for a winter that spared us of another snowmageddon. Now, on to spring and on to warmer weather!
And for our Council, it's been a very busy legislative season in Annapolis. As you'll read below, this state legislative session will have a tremendous impact on Montgomery County. And in addition to promoting and protecting our county's interests in Annapolis, the Council has been busy reviewing the County Executive's Capital Budget and preparing for upcoming Operating Budget deliberations. Please know that on all fronts, we are working hard on your behalf.
Rarely has a state legislative session been more critical to the future of our County than the current one. Since the start of session, I have spent a good bit of time in Annapolis meeting with our delegation on a range of items that will have a tremendous impact on Montgomery County.
The Pension Shift
You may have heard that Governor O'Malley, as part of his recommended state budget for FY13, has recommended shifting the responsibility for paying teacher pensions from the state to the counties. For Montgomery County, the proposed pension shift would cost $47 million in FY13 and $315 million over the next five years.
How much is $47 million? It pays for the jobs of nearly 500 teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other vital County personnel. It is more than the County's general fund budgets for housing, transportation, and environmental protection combined. Our entire budget for libraries is less than $30 million.
The state's pension shortfall is not of the County's making. It has raised pension benefits to unsustainable levels without providing adequate funding. Our County cannot be asked to assume financial responsibility for this - we have cut services to the bone and we are at the charter limit in terms of local taxation.
Over the last few weeks, my colleagues and I, along with representatives of the PTA, labor, the arts, the disabled community, park users, and other civic organizations have united to deliver a clear message to our delegation: we simply cannot afford this shift. I would encourage you to visit www.stoptheshiftmd.com to learn more, and find out how you can help.
Maintenance of Effort
Many of you are familiar with "MOE", or the state's Maintenance of Effort law, which requires counties to maintain per-pupil funding for education from year-to-year. Montgomery County, until the Great Recession prevented us from meeting MOE, consistently exceeded its MOE obligation.
The broad consensus is that MOE needs reform. And I believe there are a number of areas where the various stakeholders can arrive at common ground. I was pleased that the original version of Senate Bill 848, began to lay the groundwork for that common ground-approach to reforming MOE. Unfortunately, SB 848 has been amended to take a very different approach. It is now a dramatic overreach that needs serious rethinking. In its current form, the Bill disincentivizes a County from ever exceeding education funding requirements under MOE in the future and jeopardizes our County's well-guarded AAA bond rating. The County Executive and I wrote to our Montgomery County Delegation yesterday to express our deep concerns with this bill.
The Future of the Capital Crescent Trail
Ever since the 1990 Georgetown Branch Master Plan was adopted, it has been the County's intent that both a light rail line and a paved trail should be built along the Georgetown Branch right of way. And since that time the understanding has been that the State would pay for the light rail line and the County would pay for the trail. I believe that the time is right for the County to include monies for the Trail in the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) that is currently under review by the Council.
The Purple Line has been identified as among the highest priority projects for transportation that the County is endorsing. I have always held that the Trail is an integral component of the Purple Line. It is with all this in mind that the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy, and Environment Committee, which I chair, unanimously recommended including monies for building the trail.
In the course of these deliberations there were several considerations: lighting, call boxes and landscaping issues being the easiest to resolve. The contentious issue was whether the Trail and the light rail line could fit together inside the Bethesda Tunnel. This has been the subject of a great deal of analysis by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) as well as Montgomery County's Department of Transportation. The Committee took testimony from many of the stakeholders including the Town of Chevy Chase, the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. The Committee found that is was both too risky and too costly to have a 12 foot hiker-biker tail suspended over the train line as the design through the Tunnel called for. The risk to the Apex Buildings' structural integrity was deemed 'too high' by our Department of Transportation.
This is an extremely disappointing outcome. However, the potential for an additional $50 million price tag for suspending the Trail over the train along with the untold price of undermining the Apex Building was too much. MTA is in the process of reviewing other possible configurations for the tunnel which could include a 5 foot sidewalk. This design would allow the connectivity we seek if not the full hiker biker Trail we had hoped to achieve. We will hear back from MTA before the CIP is finalized in May so we will continue to pursue this and other options.
I am also convinced that the small part of the Trail on street, as envisioned by the Master Plan, can be made a safe experience. Monies are in the CIP for this project and we have asked that a Task Force work with the County to design the best possible hiker biker segment through Bethesda. Included in the Task Force would be representatives of the Town of Chevy Chase, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail and the Bethesda Urban Partnership. Signal phasing, changes in traffic flow and prominent signage can help to make for a safe crossing through Bethesda.
I know the Trail experience will be different, in some cases, very different than it is today. I am committed to continue to press MTA for connectively through the tunnel for walkers and I am hopeful we can see this result.
Kensington Sector Plan
Last week our Council took a preliminary straw vote on the Kensington Sector Plan. The Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee held several worksessions on the plan, and although I am not a member of the committee, I participated in most of these worksessions.
I appreciated from the beginning that residents of Kensington hold very strong views with respect to the sector plan. As is usually the case in my approach to contentious land use issues, I wanted to explore areas where there might be common ground to be found.
The Council worked its way to the final sets of issues - strengthening the plan's commitment to ground level retail and active street fronts, determining the zoning and height on a few properties, and revisiting bonus transit density as a policy issue.
The preliminary straw vote came out 8-1. The Council will take a final vote on the plan Tuesday, March 20. You can see the plan here.
A Small Business "Navigator"
We have a lot of rules, regulations, and requirements in this County. And while many of them are in place to achieve broader policy goals, the sheer volume can at times be daunting to a small business owner who is new to the County or needs help getting their small business off the ground. And we know that in Montgomery County, "small business is big business."
That is why I am sponsoringBill 05-12, which would create a "small business navigator". This position would be dedicated to advising and assisting new and existing small businesses in, literally, navigating the complexities of Montgomery County regulations so that small business owners can worry less about red tape and more about register tape.
I am pleased that Bill 05-12 already has the endorsement of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, and the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. The Bill is scheduled for a PHED Committee worksession on March 19.
Shaping Our Future: Adapting to Change
This Spring, our Council is hosting a series of discussions called "Shaping Our Future: Adapting to Change." These briefings will address some of the most significant issues facing our County as we look ahead to our future. I believe that our first session held last month, regarding our County's changing demographics, was a productive and informative start to the series that featured Dr. Joshua Starr, MCPS Superintendent, and Dr. DeRionne Pollard, President of Montgomery College.
Our next few sessions will take place as follows. All briefings are televised on County Cable Montgomery, which you can watch here.
Brad Burnham, Managing Partner, Union Square Ventures
Wayne Jackson, Chief Executive Officer, Sonatype
Roger Ballentine, President, Green Strategies Inc.
David Lieberg, State Policy Counsel, Google
"Workforce Development in a Changing Economy"
March 20, 11:00 AM
Harry Holzer, Professor, Georgetown University
Karen Elzey, Director of Skills for America's Future, Aspen Institute
"Preserving and Creating Affordable Housing"
March 27, 11:00 AM
Roger Lewis, Architect, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland
Michael Bodaken, Executive Director, National Housing Trust
Ralph Bennett, Architect, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland
"Transit 2.0: Purple Line, CCT, and the Rapid Transit Network"
April 10, 11:00 AM
Mark Winston, Chair, County Executive's Transit Task Force
Task Force members Jonathan Genn, Tina Slater, David McDonough
Tom Street, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer
White Flint Update by Dan Hoffman, Chair, White Flint Implementation Committee
The promise of White Flint is becoming more of a reality every day, and the past several weeks are no exception. Two site plans have been approved for White Flint and both demonstrate the vision outlined in the White Flint Sector Plan. We continue to monitor progress in White Flint and ensure that property owners and the County alike adhere to the vision of the sector plan.
First, the property we currently call Mid Pike Plaza will soon become Pike & Rose, a mixed use development with retail, new restaurants, a high-end movie theater and an attractive residential building. This site plan for this property, owned by Federal Realty Investment Trust, was approved unanimously by the Planning Board. It will actually ADD trees to the existing site and greatly enhance storm water management with elements like green roofs and LEED certification. The development will also add 215 moderately priced dwelling units and a childcare center. Of course, we also can't ignore the $1.1 billion in net new tax revenue generated by the new development over the life of the plan. You can view a complete presentation on the project here.
The second plan is on the block north of the new Whole Foods in White Flint. This plan, presented by the JBG corporation, offers us the most exciting design proposal so far in White Flint. In what could become the most iconic building in White Flint, JBG has proposed a residential tower on the northwest corner of the property with a cascading glass facade that is difficult to describe with words. So I encourage you to go to the presentation referenced below for pictures. The property will also include a very attractive plaza, and office building, and a more 'soda and popcorn' oriented theater. This site plan was also unanimously approved by the Planning Board. The presentation for this plan can be found here.
In the coming months we will see more plans come up for approved. The sketch plan for the property that is currently home to White Flint Mall will come before the Planning Board soon. Many of you have already seen the presentation of the plan from the Lerner Corporation and the Tower Company. It reflects the growing movement away from the suburban, auto-oriented shopping mall.
One other sketch plan has already been approved but has not yet moved forward into the site plan process. That plan involves the Fitzgerald property on Rockville Pike. There is no estimated time frame for that plan to advance further. We will continue to monitor the progress of all of these plans and any new ones that may arrive.
Dan Hoffman is Co-Chair of the White Flint Implementation Committee administered by the Planning Department, Chair of the White Flint Ad Hoc Urban District administered by the County Executive, and President of the Randolph Civic Association. He has been involved with White Flint planning for almost six years.