Thursday, May 12, 2016

Rockville residents hear many excuses, few answers at Carver bus depot meeting (Video+photos)

A citizen uprising against developer-driven government decisions in Montgomery County continued last night in Rockviille. Hundreds of residents opposed to a Montgomery County Public Schools bus depot, proposed for the Carver Educational Services Center at 850 Hungerford Drive, crammed into the all-purpose room at College Gardens Elementary School. Led by a citizen group known as the Carver Coalition, residents were already gathering in protest outside the school more than half-an-hour before the MCPS-hosted meeting started.

Chants of "No bus depot!" and "Shame on Leggett!" echoed through the College Gardens neighborhood, as reporters from ABC7 and Montgomery Community Television interviewed residents about the controversial proposal. Once inside, the residents continued their impromptu protest as the start time of the meeting neared. [Click the thumbnail below to watch video of the protests]

The proposal to place 100 school buses at the Carver site is controversial for many reasons, including exhaust emissions, pedestrian and child safety, noise (the buses have to test their horns each morning at 6:00 AM), the ugly fencing that would be erected, environmental impacts, and the plan's incompatibility with the Carver site's historic district designation.

Many public officials attended, including Rockville's representatives in the General Assembly. Delegate Kumar Barve told the crowd that he, State Senator Cheryl Kagan, and Delegates Andrew Platt and Jim Gilchrist all strongly oppose the Carver depot. Also in attendance were Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, City Councilmembers Virginia Onley and Mark Pierzchala, and several City staff members, including Acting City Manager Craig Simoneau and Planning Director Susan Swift. Former Rockville mayor Larry Giammo, who has been active in the citizen efforts to stop the Carver depot, was also present.

In a question that would be posed again and again throughout the evening, Barve asked MCPS staff, "who is the ultimate decision-maker?" After an inconclusive answer, Barve responded, "I don't feel I got a crisp answer to my question." Neither did Pierzchala. "I am a little bit upset at the answer you just gave," he said. "You ought to be here able to give an answer to those process questions, and not just engineering questions," Pierzchala added.

But the state and Rockville-level elected officials will have very little power to stop the Carver plan, under the Mandatory Referral process that makes it difficult to stop government development proposals.

The Montgomery County Council has the final authority to stop the depot, but MCPS officials and even the councilmembers in attendance would not acknowledge that fact, even under pressure from citizens to specify where the buck stops in this case. In fact, councilmembers rankled attendees by cutting into the head of the line of residents patiently waiting their turn to ask MCPS officials questions.

"Let the citizens speak!" "We need to hear from the people, not from elected officials!" were among the shouts, as Councilmembers George Leventhal and Sid Katz took command of the microphone. Attendees had already sat through a lengthy Powerpoint presentation clearly designed to reduce the public comment portion of the meeting.

To Councilmember Marc Elrich's credit, he has been engaged on this issue since the beginning, and had to be cajoled by colleagues to reluctantly come forward from the back of the room. Elrich implored the Board of Education to stop the plan; Leventhal blamed County Executive Ike Leggett "and his staff - it's their job."

But Leventhal's attempt to turn the Carver Coalition's grassroots turnout effort into a ready-made campaign rally for himself, complete with prepared applause lines of just how much he really, really opposes the Carver depot, ultimately backfired. While speaking at length (while the first actual residents had yet to get the microphone) about how much he opposes using the Carver site, Leventhal neglected to tell the crowd that he had voted for the money to design and construct a Carver depot!

Mr. Leventhal not only voted to approve Resolution 18-396 on February 9 this year, but he made the motion that triggered the vote according to the meeting minutes!

When a citizen later brought Leventhal's vote for the resolution up, Leventhal committed his latest "Four Pinocchio/Pants on Fire" gaffe. Leventhal claimed the money he voted for was simply to locate an appropriate site, not to design and construct a depot at Carver.

The citizen then handed Leventhal the actual resolution he had voted for, and asked Leventhal to read it aloud. Realizing his falsehood had been exposed, Leventhal flatly refused to comply. "No, I will not read that," he said firmly, handing the paper back to his constituent.

As you will see in this video, Leventhal then gestured and grimaced in exasperation, before returning to his seat as the text of the resolution was read aloud by a citizen:

The resolution appropriated $1,725,000 for "design" ($150,000) and construction ($1,575,000) of a new depot. On Page 3 of the document, which Leventhal refused to read aloud, it clearly states that the money is for "design and construction of the front parking lot at the Carver Educational Services Center to accommodate bus parking." Oops!

So consider the scene - the County Council is attempting to portray themselves as heroes to the rescue, when every one of the councilmembers speaking voted for the Carver depot design and construction. You can't make this stuff up, folks!

Most residents, while appreciating any opposition to the depot from the County Council at this point, were not likely fooled by the 11th-hour "heroics" of the councilmembers (six of whom didn't even bother to show up; neither did County Executive Ike Leggett, nor the superintendent of MCPS).

Woodley Gardens resident Margot Stein noted that some elected officials only now have "jumped on the train at the last minute, when they saw where this was going. You've let us down desperately. You've really let us down. I'm not voting for anybody who votes for this project."

The president of the Plymouth Woods community association had a blunt message for the County Council from his residents. Reporting that 272 residents had unanimously voted to oppose the Carver depot at their meeting earlier in the evening, he took the microphone to tell councilmembers, "Your time in office is done. We're gonna get you out of here so fast - and Ike Leggett, too. You're on the way out." 

The crowd roared and applauded.

For all of the talking by the councilmembers, the only assurances residents got were that A) the Council has to give the go-ahead to relinquish the current Shady Grove bus depot to the developer that will redevelop it as residential (and let's face it, that's why we're in this mess - the developer-beholden elected officials who run our County), and that B) the Council can rescind the above-mentioned $1,725,000 for the design and construction of the Carver depot.

Moreover, parse the statements of the councilmembers very closely. They left plenty of legal room to later approve a depot at Carver in their carefully-worded comments.

Now, how about the actual public?

So many residents had questions and comments that not everyone was given the chance to speak - despite the hosts of the meeting being the owners of the building!

The resident who really brought the house down was a graduate of the original Carver school, the only public high school for African-Americans in Montgomery County during the segregation era.

"I am a product of Carver High School," he began as a hush fell over the often-noisy room. "As I look back upon my education here in the County seat of Montgomery County, and how the [Montgomery County] Board of Education did not build an elementary school for us, and did not build a junior high school for us...I am the fifth generation of a slave family. So Carver was built."

"[George Washington] Carver was not a bus driver," he continued pointedly. "Carver was a scientist. Something he tried to instill in all of us, was to get an education."

To now pretend the Carver school never existed, he said, "The rug's too small. You can't sweep it under the rug. And now we want to put a bus depot in front of this historical building? No way. No way."

The gentleman received a large ovation from the crowd.

No one in the crowd spoke in favor of building the depot.

One leader of the opposition to the depot said, "I think this is a bad idea." Turning to the audience, he asked, "Do you think this is a bad idea?" "YEAH!!" the crowd roared back.

Mayor Newton implored residents to also support the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Rockville, where MCPS is now plotting to build an additional depot at 1000 Westmore Avenue (a.k.a. the WINX property, as it is known from its radio broadcasting days), directly across the street from homes.

Resident Scott Weaver noted that his window is "110 feet from the curb of the [Carver] lot," and said he is concerned for the health of his two small children. "Who is going to introduce a motion at their elected body to stop this?" "If the will is there, what is the action" any of the elected bodies can take, asked resident Theresa Defino.

Rockville resident and longtime activist Drew Powell said he has documentation from the County Council Education Committee "from more than a year ago, this documentation says, 'We're going to put some buses at Carver.'" Powell asked why residents weren't notified at that early stage.

"Why would you put a bus depot where people live," a young girl asked. "It harms people, and it harms the environment."

One attendee thought the racial overtones of putting buses at Carver were too offensive. Noting the history of desegregation and busing, putting school buses on a historic African-American site would be "a slap in the face," he said. "Especially at this time when racial and ethnic tensions are so high."

A man who moved to College Square in 2007 recalled his realtor gushing that "What's great about Maryland is that everything is master-planned." The crowd chuckled.

"Nobody would think of putting a commercial truck depot on this site," said a 36-year resident of Mannakee Street, which runs right alongside the Carver site and into the residential neighborhood directly adjacent to it. "This use is incompatible. We should not spend one more penny on this stupid idea."

His neighbor, who has lived on the street one more year than him, told MCPS officials, "Don't screw up our city."

Another young girl said, "I won't be able to sleep in the morning" with the bus horn tests blaring, and loud buses departing the depot. "It will make me tired at school, and I won't be able to do my best."

Monique Ashton, PTA President at College Gardens ES, asked if comments at the meeting were being recorded verbatim. No, it turns out that two people were simply jotting down notes. Ashton said that presented a transparency issue, if other officials won't be able to review the full input given at the meeting. She also implored the Council to start using the money from land sales for school construction.

A resident of Ivy League Lane asked, "How possibly can you mitigate [the noise of the buses]? I just can't imagine how anyone can live in this condition." He paused for several moments, before saying, "I am speechless."

How about performing a pollution evaluation, one resident asked. Seth Adams, Director of MCPS' construction division, said they don't have the expertise to do that, but that they would try to find someone qualified to do so, now that it had been brought up.

"How any person in a normal mind can suggest this strange idea [of a bus depot at Carver]," a resident asked. "This is ridiculous, and absolutely unacceptable."

A 45-year resident of College Gardens said he had a background in nuclear engineering. "Part of my experience was in forecasting," he said. "And I forecast this project will not go forward," he said to applause.

One student said, "We are not waking up at the butt crack of dawn, and ruining our GPAs, because you decide to put a bus depot on this site." A much-younger student concurred less colorfully that "No one wants to wake up at the crack of dawn just to hear these buses honk."

Ultimately, we have the same problem here as in multiple other communities where residents are now rising up in protest - developers are running the County through their contributions to the County Council campaign accounts. Why are noisy, polluting public facilities being relocated from industrial land near the railroad tracks to residential neighborhoods across Montgomery County? Purely for developer profit. Period.

A bus depot in a residential neighborhood? Anyone with common sense knows that idea is completely nuts.

It's easy for the Council to talk, but they are eventually going to have to find a depot site.

None of the ones discussed are viable. None are appropriate. Carver? No. Westmore? Nope. Avery Road? No. Gude Drive landfill? The jury is still out on that one.

So where else can this thing go? Are they going to pit one Rockville neighborhood against another? Rockville versus Aspen Hill? The Council is so certain there won't be a depot at Carver, but where will it be, then?

Why wasn't this addressed years ago? How did the Council have time to ram through the entire Westbard sector plan in Bethesda, and numerous other developer giveaways, but not time to find a depot site? Or to kill the idea of selling the existing depot to begin with?

I think we all know the answer.

Former Rockville mayor
Larry Giammo joins the
Agenda for the meeting
Delegate Kumar Barve speaks
County Councilmember Marc Elrich
Graduate of the historic
Carver high school schools
the County Council

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this recap. I think you very accurately captured the tone of the room, as well as the motives and rhetoric of the politicians in the room.

    Everyone's against it, but who will stop it?