Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Process that favors developers over citizens, such as in Rockville bus depot schemes, targeted by residents

Residents organized by Save Westbard gathered at the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda last night to discuss next steps in what is becoming a Montgomery County-wide citizen uprising against a planning process dominated by development interests. With the recent passage of the Westbard sector plan, attempts by the County to place several bus depots in residential neighborhoods in Rockville, controversial developments planned in Lyttonsville and downtown Bethesda/Chevy Chase, and the Planning Board approval of an urban-style low-income apartment complex in rural Damascus, disparate citizen groups are linking together to change the process, and boot out the County Council that voted unanimously to approve the Westbard plan and Carver bus depot.

One indication of the frustration with County elected officials was activist and attorney Robin Ficker collecting a bounty of new signatures for his term-limits initiative. Ficker believes he will come in with more than the 10,000 signatures required for term limits to be placed on the ballot for voter approval or rejection. If approved by voters, Councilmembers Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal would be forced to step down in 2018, and could not run again for those seats for four years.

Two new websites are being launched in the effort at Westbard and countywide. is planned to be the hub of activism for a county-scale citizen operation to reform the planning process, and reduce the influence of development interests in County planning and politics. Currently, the Council receives more than 80% of its campaign contributions from developers and development attorneys, with the exception of Elrich, who accepts no funds from development interests.

Evidence emerged that the Council has actually been cynically crunching the voter numbers, and had concluded that the number of voters at Westbard alone could not boot them from office. That Machiavellian calculation emboldened them to unanimously pass the Westbard plan despite overwhelming community opposition and anger. The same calculations could be underway for the Westmore Avenue bus depot site, where the County Council and Board of Education are not stepping in to stop it. With large, mobilized citizen groups now linking up, all bets are off for their reelection in 2018.

More specific to Westbard (but potentially duplicable in other areas facing sector plan rewrites), is a second site, Jack Lopez, a resident and professional urban planner, will head up the site. It will not only dive in-depth into the Westbard plans expected to be unveiled next week, but also present alternative concepts going forward.

Lopez says he will try to bring new tech innovations other jurisdictions and the private sector are using in planning to the analysis. Many of the methods currently used by the County to study traffic, for example, are vague, inaccurate, and incomplete.

Longtime County activist Stan Wiggins presented an analysis of the option to incorporate, which a majority of residents voted to explore back in April. It was hoped that an incorporated southwest Bethesda, or Lyttonsville, for example, would give local residents authority over land-use decisions like Rockville and Gaithersburg currently enjoy. Wiggins found that a new municipality's land-use authority would be retained by the County, unless a provision in the law was overridden by the state legislature. Given that many state-level office holders also receive hefty checks from the same developers, that is unlikely to happen.

This is just the beginning, as the large turnout at last night's meeting suggests.

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