Friday, January 20, 2017

MoCo Councilman plotting new way to overcrowd roads, classrooms

Montgomery County's public schools and roads are already filled to overcapacity. The promise that unfettered residential growth would generate massive tax revenues has given way to the reality of a massive structural County budget deficit. Despite all that, County Councilman Hans Riemer wants to pack in as many more new residents as possible.

During a recent Twitter discussion, Riemer said he wanted to pursue a zoning change that would allow single-family home properties in the county to be subdivided into two residences, in the form of duplexes. Given that today's smaller families would easily fit into a duplex unit, Riemer's plan would massively increase the student generation rate in existing neighborhoods. Not to mention the impact on MoCo's traffic congestion, already rated the worst in America.

Riemer's exchange with pro-urbanization blogger Dan Reed requires some background to fully appreciate. Reed was at one time a staff member in Councilmember George Leventhal's office. Leventhal infamously called the suburbs "a mistake," and in a 2010 television appearance, displayed a rendering showing a single-family home being replaced by an apartment building. This dystopian vision for urbanization of existing SFH neighborhoods is one of the worst-kept secrets of the Montgomery County political cartel.

The bulldozing of single-family homes at the edges of current and future urban centers in the county will begin in areas where real estate values are lower - Aspen Hill, Twinbrook, Glenmont, Wheaton, and White Oak, for example. But what about places like Chevy Chase, East Bethesda and "Westbard," where teardowns get replaced with two-million-dollar homes? It's unlikely a development firm could afford to buy blocks worth of such homes in the 20814 and 20816 zip codes.

Reed memorably lamented this obstacle to bringing urban density to the suburbs a few years ago, and proposed a solution of converting large luxury homes (often derided by critics as "McMansions") into what would essentially be boarding houses with multiple units inside (however, it was not clear what sort of nuclear armageddon, Maoist cultural revolution, or similar catastrophe would have displaced the wealthy families who currently reside inside these homes).

So as Reed contemplated the million-dollar home obstacle in Chevy Chase again in late December, Riemer had a bright idea - what about duplexes? Twice the strain on schools and roads, and twice the drain on County revenues. What's not to like, right?

Remember, he's not talking about greenfield development. Riemer explicitly tweeted, "this is specifically single lot redevelopment."

For a guy who voted to urbanize the established, low-density "Westbard" area of Bethesda, while falsely claiming it was a "mile from two Metros," such zeal for overcrowding doesn't surprise.

But the exchange showed again how little California carpetbagger Riemer understands Montgomery County. 

Duplexes are considered lower-class, not desirable. And Riemer asked if there are "market examples" of duplexes in Montgomery County. He's obviously never made it to Aquarius in Aspen Hill, or Berry Street near Glenmont, to name just two. Not surprising for a guy who needs a GPS to find his way around the county. But those were new developments - Riemer is proposing retrofitting the whole county for duplexes. Good luck with that.

"I am going to look into this further," Riemer vowed. Given his disastrous record on liquor reform, food trucks, the "nighttime economy," and cybersecurity, those words are your cue to either chuckle...or run for the hills.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Just when you thought MoCo Council couldn't get any more anti-business...$15 min. wage

The Montgomery County Council burnished the county's reputation as the most-hostile-to-business jurisdiction in the region yesterday, voting to raise the minimum wage to $15. That's the highest minimum wage in the D.C. Metro area, putting the already-moribund county in an even more disadvantageous job creation position.

In a county that is the only one in the region to experience a net loss in private sector jobs (3885, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)  - including the loss of 2141 retail jobs - since 2000,  local Dunkin' Donuts franchise operator Boris Lander has been a one-man job creation machine. In just the last few years, he has opened up so many locations in Montgomery County that I've lost count. The jobs these stores create are opportunities for those at the entry level of the job market, exactly the type of person the Council purports to care so deeply about.

Lander has become the point man for the business community's concern over the latest wage hike. He has put real numbers on the table, to quantify just what the negative impact a $15 wage will be on jobs. The Council ignored the data, and actually even boldly stated it was doing so.

One thing that really jumped out in the wage discussion, was that the Council is not conducting any legitimate research on the fiscal impacts of the laws it passes. It's left up to private business owners like Lander to take their time to produce such data - and then the Council simply dismisses the evidence.

Montgomery County started behind the 8 ball even before this Council passed two minimum wage increases. The high-tax jurisdiction hasn't attracted a single major corporate headquarters in two decades. Its wealthiest residents are fleeing in numbers so significant, their exit has cratered county revenues, and shuttered the vaunted "Rodeo Drive" retail strip in Chevy Chase.

But the impact of the previous wage hike has been explosive - and not in the way the Council promised. Many fast food restaurants I patronize all across Montgomery County - all of them except one - have radically slashed the number of employees. You'll often find one cook in the kitchen, and one or two cashiers out front (depending if there is a drive-thru) - and that's it. Some restaurants have even installed touch screen ordering systems.

It turns out the touted "success of Fight for $15" was a complete failure. And this is in a Montgomery County where restaurant growth has "slowed since 2012, and remains flat," according to Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland (by comparison, Frederick's grew 5.4% and Fairfax's by 6% in 2015 alone).

The impact on us, the residents who patronize businesses here, has been even greater. Prices of Big Macs and fries have significantly increased. There's essentially no such thing as a Dollar Menu anymore at McDonald's. Not only have workers lost jobs, but those at the bottom have lost the ability to get a substantial amount of food for a low price (and if you feel the urge to make a snarky comment about those who get by on fast food, you're probably a paid Guy Friday for the $130K-salaried Whole Foods elites on the Council).

CEOs - and the relocation firms they contract with - are getting the latest headlines from Montgomery County, and the news is not good. Even though the new $15 wage doesn't target the kind of high-wage firms we should be convincing to move here, it is a strong indicator of MoCo's hostility to business. The Council's willingness to recklessly jump off the $15 cliff by itself in the region for purely-self-serving political reasons sends a clear message to businesses here and around the world - Montgomery County is closed for business.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Gaithersburg mayor advises Bethesda residents on the pros and cons of incorporating

Tom Reynolds of the Maryland Municipal League,
Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, five-term
Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman, and
Katya Marin of the East Bethesda Citizens Association
listen as Mary Flynn (standing) of the
Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents speaks
Residents who feel the Montgomery County Council and Planning Board are unresponsive to their concerns over development, density and quality of life issues crowded into the auditorium at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School last night, to begin considering the possibility of incorporating Bethesda as a city. Co-hosted by the Coalition of Bethesda-Area Residents and the East Bethesda Citizens Association, the event was designed to facilitate discussion, rather than to decide whether to incorporate or not. "We are starting the dialogue tonight," CBAR founder and Town of Chevy Chase Vice Mayor Mary Flynn said at the outset of the meeting.

Invited to brief the audience on the incorporation process, and the pros and cons of municipal government, were Tom Reynolds, Director of Education Services for the Maryland Municipal League; Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, and five-term Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman. Also in attendance were County Councilmember Marc Elrich (D - At-large) and Delegate Marc Korman (D - District 16).

Ashman described the closer relationship between municipal leaders and their constituents as one advantage of incorporation. In contrast, under the County Council, "the closest person to downtown Bethesda lives up in Pike and Rose," Flynn noted. "They don't actually live here. They hear us, but it's not clear that they necessarily understand us."

Over an hour and forty-minutes of discussion, several key points became clear:

1. Incorporation would be an enormous and challenging undertaking.

The process of incorporating is "not intended to be easy," Reynolds said. While there are 157 municipalities in Maryland, only 5 of those have been able to incorporate since the current rules were established in 1954. All five were in Montgomery County - but all five also already had Special Taxing Districts established near the beginning of the 20th Century, so the County Council had already lost the 17% of income tax revenue each receives back annually. There is virtually no incentive for the Council to allow a referendum for Bethesda to incorporate, other than the threat that disgruntled residents will oust them in the next election.

2. The current County Council has to be voted out in 2018 no matter what direction the community decides to go.

The current Council has made it abundantly clear that its planning priorities and goals are radically different from those of its constituents. A unanimous Council vote to pass the highly-controversial Westbard sector plan last year continues to echo loudly in citizen revolts at the ballot box and at community meetings countywide. Similar issues stirred up anger in Chevy Chase, East Bethesda, Rockville, Lyttonsville, Aspen Hill and Damascus. Likewise, a majority on the Council oppose incorporation of new municipalities.

It is entirely possible for the community to change planning and growth policies in the 2018 Council election, which would eliminate the need to incorporate. Ensuring that candidates who reflect the priorities of residents are elected would not only prevent passage of plans like Westbard, but would also bring the Planning Board in line with the community as well - the Council handpicks the Planning Board.

If residents ultimately decided they wanted to incorporate, they would still need a new Council that had a 5-member majority who favor allowing communities to incorporate. A representative of the new voter advocacy group,, said incorporation "won't succeed unless we get a new County Council."

3. Incorporation, and the second step of obtaining local planning authority from the state, would be a long-term process, too long to stop some of the urgent issues currently enraging County residents from happening.

Whatever decision is made regarding incorporation, it's clear that residents have to start organizing now for the 2018 Council elections.

4. Elimination of At-large Council seats, and a redistricting of nine seats to allow for closer and better geographical representation, are another shorter and easier route to major change without incorporation. 

Currently, the same Councilman who represents Bethesda also represents Poolesville.

5. There is strength in numbers no matter what approach is taken.

Anger in, and coordination among, many communities affected by recent Council decisions, already helped pass term limits in last year's election. Numbers would also be essential in any effort to incorporate. Reynolds suggested that the Council might be forced to be responsive to incorporation referendum requests if they receive simultaneous applications from multiple communities at once (i.e. Bethesda, Damascus, Lyttonsville, etc.). Last night's audience had many residents still angry over the Westbard disaster, and from as far as Damascus and Potomac. If five or six areas try to incorporate at once, Reynolds said, "I suspect the County would respond. That's part of the power" of unity.

Reynolds said last night's crowd was much larger than the community groups he ordinarily speaks to about incorporating. Ashman concurred: "The energy, the organization that you guys have put into this, I'm very impressed."

6. There are real advantages to incorporating.

Municipalities like Gaithersburg and Kensington are able to deliver a higher level of services to their residents than the County can. Being able to provide superior services to their residents, and having a closer relationship with them than the County Council can in a County of more than a million people, Ashman said, is "a glorious thing."

Fosselman said Kensington's ability to have its own snowplowing services is "a huge bonus in the wintertime." During last year's blizzard, Kensington's snow removal crews "worked around the clock," and in contrast to the County and State, kept the town's street's clear. He added that a municipality can also hire a city or town manager who can handle the day-to-day operations, while providing an additional point of contact for residents. Even having local control over street trees can have a positive impact on the quality of life, Fosselman suggested.

Providing top notch plowing, trash collection and other basic services "is more expensive, but it's worth it," said Fosselman. When purchasing a second home in Florida, he said, buying one in an incorporated area was a requirement for him.

7. There are real costs to incorporating.

Residents of an incorporated Bethesda could pay roughly an additional 16 cents per every $100 of assessed value of their property to fund those high-quality services, Ashman said. Acquiring land for a City Hall and other new municipal properties would be a very expensive proposition in Bethesda, he added. There is also an ongoing dispute between existing municipalities and the County regarding how much they should be reimbursed for the money they save the County through the services they provide, Ashman said.

8. An independent Bethesda would have to provide a lot of services.

The only slim advantage to the County in losing Bethesda to incorporation - and therefore one that could provide leverage in negotiations with the Council - would be if Bethesda took on a major chunk of services that Montgomery County now provides in the area,

9. The threat of incorporation may be a more effective tool than incorporation itself.

Holding the specter of incorporation over the Council's head - and the heads of those running for it in 2018 - could give residents some additional leverage in the arguments over development currently on the table. One resident who supported that notion said, "I want to be able to control my street," citing the many construction-related sidewalk closures in downtown Bethesda and poor stewardship of street trees. The fact is, virtually all of the issues people are angry about could be solved by simply putting the right people on the Council in 2018, without having to pay the higher taxes incorporation would involve - but we don't have to tell the Council that.

10. There are two ways to get control over planning and zoning.

Bethesda could get full planning authority such as Rockville and Gaithersburg currently enjoy. Or it could seek a lesser option, a hybrid approach under Article 28. With the latter option, a municipality's wishes on a planning decision can only be overridden by supermajority of the Council and Planning Board. Kensington and Takoma Park have taken that approach. Fosselman said that, to his knowledge, neither municipality has been overruled by either body in Montgomery County..

11. But there's no guarantee of getting either type, and Bethesda would have to incorporate just to find out if it can, through a second process at the state level.

"It's one thing to incorporate, but that doesn't guarantee you'll get zoning authority," Fosselman said. "So you'll have to be prepared to fight twice.

What now?

Reynolds had some advice if Bethesda is ready to take up that fight. The bid of Rollingwood in Chevy Chase flopped at the Council level about a decade ago, but Reynolds and Elrich made a compelling case that it didn't fail simply because the Council is anti-incorporation. Elrich said that he favors incorporation in general, but that Rollingwood made clear it was not going to offer services to residents, and was planning to simply give them a tax refund with their 17% reimbursement. Reynolds and Ashman agreed that Bethesda would have to show the County Council it will offer substantial services to its residents.

Second, Reynolds recalled, Rollingwood's proposed boundaries got too big. When they expanded beyond the core group of streets where sentiment for independence was high, the Council concluded that the level of overall resident support didn't meet the bar for moving forward. Of course, if any Rollingwood residents reading this would like to object to these assertions, please comment below the article. Reynolds said you would almost have to go block by block to measure support in Bethesda, and then exclude areas that oppose it from the proposed city's area, if possible.

Third, all five communities that successfully incorporated in recent decades had populations under 1000. The latter two points, on the one hand, portend failure for Bethesda, which would be a sizable city. On the other hand, we are witnessing an unprecedented level of discontent and revolt among residents against the Council.

"The 'smart growth' is the dumbest growth I've ever seen," said a resident of Wyngate since 1978.

Fosselman suggested residents pursuing incorporation consider working closely with the Bethesda Urban Partnership, as it already provides some services that a municipality would. He also counseled citizens to approach the Council about incorporation in a friendly, rather than confrontational manner. Katya Marin of the East Bethesda Citizens Association said that the only problem with that is that they have already tried to do so, and the Council has been unresponsive to resident concerns so far.

Reynolds said the Council wants its constituents to be happy. "If they wanted us to be happy, we wouldn't be here!" a resident shouted from the audience to applause.

Flynn said she wanted to clear up the misconception that incorporation is merely about wealthy "Bethesda keeping its money in its pockets." 83% of income tax revenue from Bethesda residents would still go to Montgomery County under the rules, she said, and the new city would have to provide substantial services to appease the county for the loss of the other 17%.

In related news, Flynn announced that County Council President Roger Berliner would receive a 10-page letter from CBAR and East Bethesda Citizens Association today, which will be made public early next week. It outlines residents' priorities for fixing the current draft of the Bethesda Downtown sector plan. Those include the use of staging, heights and building designs that are compatible with existing neighborhoods, adequate parks and amenities, public safety, use of accurate and comprehensive data on road and school capacity, and creating "appropriate transitions to neighborhoods" adjacent to the downtown area.