Thursday, June 30, 2016

Rockville zoning chief announces how review of Chestnut Lodge project will proceed

Rockville zoning chief Jim Wasilak has announced his plan for proceeding on the review of a revised plan amendment for the Chestnut Lodge project. Applicant JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC filed the revised amendment with the City early this month.

In an email sent yesterday to parties of record in the controversial matter, Wasilak said he considered the feedback given last week by the Mayor and Council before deciding on the following process and tentative schedule:

  • Written and electronic notification of all parties of record, property owners, nearby residents and civic associations

  • Area meeting to be held by JNP Chestnut Lodge LLC on July 26

  • Staff/Development Review Committee review prior to staff report and recommendation on September 8
  • Planning Commission briefing by staff on September 14
  • Mayor and Council briefing on September 19
  • Historic District Commission courtesy review and recommendation on October 20
  • Planning Commission review and recommendation on November 9
  • Mayor and Council public hearing on December 5
  • Mayor and Council discussion and instructions to staff on January 9, 2017
  • Mayor and Council final decision on January 30, 2017
Wasilak notes that the HDC is being asked to give a recommendation, beyond just the courtesy review it gave the earlier plan amendment. I've highlighted in bold the meetings above where the public will likely or certainly have the chance to speak.

While the new plan amendment reduces the horizontal width and footprint of the project, it still does not meet the requirements of the Planned Residential Unit (PRU) agreement previously negotiated by the City for the Chestnut Lodge site. Opponents of the project have argued that PRU remains legally binding, and would not permit a townhome development on this site, which is within a historic district.

Rendering courtesy City of Rockville

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Beefsteak opens today at Westfield Montgomery Mall; is it worth a trip? (Video+photos)

 Beefsteak opens today in the Dining Terrace at Westfield Montgomery Mall. Is it worth a trip?

Watch my review and find out. Check out the menu on the Beefsteak website.
I created my own bowl with
broccoli, edamame, rice,
spicy tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes,
mozzarella cheese and
lemon honey dressing
The plastic spoon is heavier
than the typical disposable cutlery
Along with the bowl, I got potato chips,
house-made gazpacho and
Honest Tea
Honey Green Tea
Made from the finest
potatoes in Spain

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Floreen's Koch Brothers bill would gut MoCo employees' bargaining rights, union says

An expedited bill introduced by Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen would make collective bargaining with County employees more "transparent," she says. Its language evokes anti-labor initiatives by the Koch Brothers, a curious choice of inspiration in a blue jurisdiction like Montgomery.

"Council President Nancy Floreen is introducing a bill that would gut collective bargaining rights in Montgomery County," said Amy Millar, who is the lead negotiator for the UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO union. "The attacks [on public employees] never let up," Millar added.

According to Millar, the bill would reduce bargaining rights over working conditions, and allow the County Executive to ordain a "permanent umpire without union input." That refers to a provision in Floreen's bill that would strip all union power to determine who the County Executive and Council appoint as the Labor Relations Administrator. The LRA is a powerful position, because he or she has the authority to declare that either the executive or the union has violated the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. If only the County can choose the LRA...well, you can guess who would be favored.

Floreen's bill would also allow retired judges, as opposed to only those with neutral history in labor disputes, to be LRAs. That could introduce a bias, as judges are appointed by the same government officials who bargain with public employee unions.

On page 5 of the bill, number 17 would allow the County government to "create, alter, combine, contract out (italics and underlining added by me), or abolish any job classification, department, operation, unit, or other division or service, provided that no contracting of work which will displace employees may be undertaken by the employer unless ninety (90) days prior to signing the contract, or such other date of notice as agreed by parties. written notice has been given to the certified representative."

Millar says the bill's language "comes right out of ALEC model legislation," referring to the Koch Industries-backed American Legislative Exchange Council.

Floreen's support of Koch Brothers initiatives is only the latest Council link to Wall Street. Councilmember Hans Riemer's campaigns have been funded by numerous Wall Street firms and their lobbyists, including Mitt Romney's Bain Capital and Danaher Corporation, both pioneers in outsourcing American jobs to China and Mexico.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Mystery artwork in pedestrian walkway on N. Washington Street (Photos)

You may have noticed the covered walkway that has been up for awhile now at the Kettler project on N. Washington Street. There was also an unplanned addition a graffiti artist made, a portrait of a mystery man.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Leggett removes Carver and Westmore from bus depot list - who's next?

Residents in Lincoln Park and around the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville are celebrating the success of their efforts to stop Montgomery County from relocating the Shady Grove school bus depot to their neighborhoods. County Executive Ike Leggett sent a memo to County Council President Nancy Floreen yesterday announcing he is withdrawing the current Declaration of No Further Need for the existing depot on Crabbs Branch Way, and is removing Carver and 1000 Westmore Avenue from the list of potential depot sites.

While neighbors of 1000 Westmore won't likely complain, the County did end up blowing $12,000,000 on its purchase of the Westmore site in what it claimed was a budget time so tight that taxes were raised to the highest level in County history last month.

The Crabbs Branch depot was to be vacated in 2017, and sold to a developer who would build townhomes and apartments on the site near Shady Grove Metro station.

But the letter makes clear that this so-called "Smart Growth Initiative" is not over. Leggett states that he is having his staff find more suitable locations than Carver or Westmore.

The problem, of course, is that every potential depot site also has residents nearby.

You'll notice that, despite fierce community opposition, Leggett pointedly did not remove the Blair Ewing Center from the potential depot sites in his memo.

And another bad choice, the Oaks Landfill at 6001 Olney-Laytonsville Road, is one councilmembers like Hans Riemer explicitly stated they want to have a public discussion about. There are several residential subdvisions right around the site, and homes directly across the road from it. 410 buses would honk their horns and test their backup beepers each morning at 6:00 AM.

The only other site given serious public consideration last year was a property near the intersection of Woodfield Road and Snouffer School Road, also near homes.
Houses directly across
from 6001 Olney Laytonsville Road
Much of Rockville is now off the hook in this crazy, developer-fueled crusade - but the battle is just starting at these, and potentially other, poor choices for the depot site around the County. Residents near those locations are waking up to find the MoCo political cartel is headed their way.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

New renderings of funeral home converting to retail center in Rockville (Photos)

I found a couple of new renderings of the retail center being created out of the shell of a longtime funeral home at 1170 Rockville Pike. The former entrance to the funeral home on the south side of the building is now shown as an office space entrance. There's also a floor plan.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Businesspeople on MoCo Council's quest for $15 minimum wage: "That's a lot of extra Slurpees to sell"

Small business owners already struggling to profit in the moribund Montgomery County economy told the County Council last night that things will go from bad to worse if the minimum wage is hiked to $15. A bill to do just that, and tie future increases to inflation, is now on the table. Surrounding counties and Virginia do not have a minimum wage that steep.

$15? "That's a lot of extra Slurpees to sell," said Peter Gragnano of the Suburban Washington Franchise Owners Association. The hike could make a bad labor market for African-American youth in the County even worse, warned small business owner Stacey Brown. A 2015 survey I reported on showed that in Montgomery County, only 8.7% of black high school students surveyed are employed, and only 30.7% of black high school dropouts have been able to obtain employment.

Montgomery County's young black high school graduates are also being hard hit, with only 39.7% of those surveyed currently employed.

Attaching the minimum wage to inflation - which the bill would do beginning in 2021 - would also be a bad idea, another businessman testified. If inflation spiked as it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he predicted, "there won't be a way to wash a dish in a restaurant." Since the last minimum wage hike, touchscreen ordering kiosks have appeared in some County fast food restaurants, replacing cashiers.

Last night's testimony was enlightening in providing some more hard numbers on Montgomery County's floundering private sector economy. According to Maddy Voytek of the Maryland Retailers Association, Montgomery County has lost 2141 retail jobs since the turn of the century (around the same time the core members of this current Council were first elected). She said adoption of the $15 wage would "devastate our economy."

Montgomery County's restaurant sector has "slowed since 2012, and remains flat," reported Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. But things are tough all over, as County Council apologists like to tell us, right?

Wrong! Frederick County's dining sector grew by 5.4% in 2015 alone, Thompson said. How about our arch-rival Fairfax County, where Councilmember George Leventhal says he has to go to find a really good restaurant, because there aren't any in MoCo? The dining sector in Fairfax grew by 6% during that same year.

As wages go up, one person familiar with industry statistics testified, Montgomery County residents are being shut out of jobs here as Frederick and Carroll County workers seek our higher wages. They then take that money back to those jurisdictions, where they enjoy a far-lower cost of living, he said. Those counties then enjoy the tax and spending money benefits of Montgomery County retail and restaurant jobs, while putting more cars on our roads during rush hour.

Ilaya Hopkins, VP of public affairs for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said there are several problems with the proposed increase. First, it provides a "one-size-fits-all" solution to a diverse economy and labor market. Second, the potential impacts haven't been fully studied. And third, it further handicaps Montgomery County in its competition with other local jurisdictions where it is cheaper to start and operate a business.

The failure of the County's Nighttime Economy Initiative, after which there are fewer nightclubs in Bethesda than before it was implemented, is only one challenge for restaurant and bar owners. A previous wage hike, multiple new regulations and fee hikes, and a costly County liquor sales monopoly already make doing business in the hospitality sector here more challenging than in Northern Virginia.

Montgomery County Council all talk, no action on Rockville bus depot controversy (Photos)

"Talked to death in Rockville" is a good summary of yesterday's Montgomery County Council worksession on the controversial attempts to relocate the Montgomery County Public Schools bus depot in Shady Grove. That site is supposed to be cleared by next year, so that a developer can build hundreds of townhomes and apartments there. By the end of the meeting, no votes were taken and no plan of action was determined.

While Council President Nancy Floreen did not allow a resolution to deny the Declaration of No Further Need for the Shady Grove site, by the end of the meeting she agreed to bring one forward, likely next week. The County Department of General Services was directed by Floreen to bring back a cost-benefits study for the scenario of simply leaving the depot where it is, and to provide a list of temporary and permanent sites where the buses could be moved.

But none of this officially rules out the use of Carver Educational Services Center, 1000 Westmore Avenue or the Blair Ewing Center on Avery Road, all of which have been rejected soundly by residents who would be impacted. Depending which councilmember you listen to, there are all kinds of potential outcomes, and all but one (keeping the depot at Shady Grove) would place a school bus depot in someone's neighborhood.

Only two councilmembers, Sid Katz (who represents Rockville) and Marc Elrich (an at-large member), explicitly said Carver, Westmore and Avery should be removed from the list of sites under consideration. Save Blair Ewing, a resident organization fighting a bus depot on that site, is now leading a letter/email-writing campaign to sway three more councilmembers to join Katz and Elrich in placing language eliminating those sites from the list.

So next week, the Council may unanimously vote to say that the Shady Grove depot is, in fact, still needed by the County. Does that kill the Carver/Westmore/Avery plans? Not unless that language is included in the resolution, and even then, the legal ramifications of leaving the buses in place after a developer has spent millions on its plans remain to be determined. The Council also assumes that County Executive Ike Leggett could indeed reopen talks with the developer to give the County more time to relocate the depot. There's no guarantee of that, either.

The Council did talk a lot, though. To their credit, at least a few councilmembers somewhat accepted the blame for their role in allowing this depot debacle to happen. Councilmembers George Leventhal, Roger Berliner, and Hans Riemer were particularly candid in acknowledging the Council blew it with the Shady Grove plan.

"In hindsight, that plan was unwise," Leventhal conceded to his constituents in the audience.

Interestingly, while many on the Council have vehemently argued that residential development will provide large amounts of tax revenue to the County, Leventhal and a few of his colleagues are now coming around to acknowledge what I've been saying for a decade - new residential growth does not pay for itself, and in fact, costs more in services than it brings in in new revenue. The County's structural budget deficit is proof of that.

Leventhal estimated the County has spent $407 million on the Shady Grove "Smart Growth Initiative" so far. When will that expenditure "pay for itself" as Leggett promised years ago, Leventhal asked David Dise, Director of DGS. He also suggested they add the cost of County services and schools to the cost-benefit analysis.

"If I'm in a hole, do I need to keep digging," asked Elrich of the Council's predicament. He too questioned if the potential revenue would cover the cost of relocating the depot, which he said may be "the best location we'll ever have" for it.

"We shouldn't be doing this," Elrich said. "I'm just not willing to do that to people." He counseled Dise to make sure that any site suggestion is accompanied with an explanation of how it would be "better than what you have now."

Councilmember Craig Rice, who represents the Upcounty area, misfired with the audience when he launched into a strident defense of the Shady Grove plan. He noted that some of his Clarksburg constituents live right next to a bus depot. Rice then attacked many of his own constituents, saying that "they want to keep those great things that we have in Montgomery County just to themselves."

That set off a round of booing and retorts from the audience. Floreen attempted to bring the meeting to order, as Rice hastened to add that he was not referring to the Carver Coaltion. Rice said he wants "to provide housing for everyone," although he didn't explain how that would be possible, or why it is the burden of County residents to accede to overpopulation of already-developed communities.

"What we really have here is a mess," observed Katz. "There is further need for [the Shady Grove depot]. There is no question. We need to do things in a more transparent way," he added to applause. A new depot "shouldn't be next to anybody's house," or route buses through residential streets, Katz said.

Katz argued that the City of Rockville "needs to be brought into the conversation." In explicitly calling for Carver, Westmore and Blair Ewing to be removed from consideration, Katz received another round of applause. "I usually don't get applause when I say, 'No,'" he joked. Summing up the situatiion, Katz concluded 'this does not make any sense. It doesn't make any common sense, and it doesn't make any dollars and sense."

Councilmember Nancy Navarro noted she was president of the Board of Education when the Shady Grove sector plan was passed. The plan "seemed to make a lot of sense back in the day," but not in 2016, she said. "It has not yielded the revenues promised by the County."

"I'm trying to understand where some votes are," Riemer began, speaking for many in the room. In any case, he said, he would vote against the Declaration of No Further Need the Council must pass to sell the land to the developer.

"It's not right to disadvantage current residents to clear a nuisance for future residents," Riemer said. "We played a role in this mess," he acknowledged. But at the same time, Riemer added that "I don't think we can just throw up our hands and walk away."

"We all bear some responsibility," Riemer went on, but promised that the Council has finally "taken ownership of the problem."

Councilmember Roger Berliner exhorted Floreen to allow a vote on the Declaration of No Further Need during yesterday's session, a request she failed to grant.

"The notion that this will be resolved by the end of the year seems pretty far-fetched," Berliner said. He congratulated the Council staff member who prepared the report for her prediction a decade ago that the Shady Grove plan would not pay for itself. "You were right," acknowledged Berliner, before asking Dise to provide "an honest assessment" of the situation.

Berliner commended Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who was in attendance, for her work on behalf of her constituents against the Rockville depot proposals. "You've served your community well," Berliner told her.

"I think the Carver people can go home happy," Floreen said at the end of the session, despite it having produced no concrete results. When Floreen asked Dise for a list of potential sites, she completely ignored the fact that Council staff had done just that in its report for yesterday's session. The County DGS itself has reviewed 200 properties. Let's face it, if there was a good site, the County would have acquired it long ago.
MyMCMedia's Sonya Burke
interviews a member of the
Carver Coalition before the
Residents in the Carver Coalition
trademark yellow shirts

City Councilmember
Mark Pierzchala
(L in white shirt) was
one of several Rockville
elected officials on hand
"Like the buses, we will
not go quietly" was among
the creative signs held
by residents

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mayor and Council on Chestnut Lodge: "We are starting the process over"

A discussion of how to proceed on a revised project plan submitted early this month for the Chestnut Lodge site ended with a new beginning last night. The Mayor and Council advised Rockville's zoning chief, Jim Wasilak, to essentially consider the revision as a new project being submitted. That was not the preference of developer JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC, whose representative told the Mayor and Council that this was merely a minor revision that actually reduces the size of the project.

But the controversy over the plan is so great, and so many questions remain unanswered, that officials are seeking the maximum public input and discussion. The original Planned Residential Unit (PRU) agreement required a multi-family condo development, and a restoration of the historic Chestnut Lodge psychiatric facility main building. Despite the Lodge burning down in a suspicious fire in 2009, opponents of the new townhome proposal argue the PRU remains in effect, and requires the development to build a structure similar to the one lost. It also was predicated on the requirement for condos, as opposed to the more horizontal townhome design with only a handful of units.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said she would like staff to explain how the existing PRU can be modified when the circumstances have changed. "I would like to see an is this respective of the PRU that is on the property?" she asked. Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said he also has not received satisfactory answers to his questions regarding whether or not the proposed project meets the Secretary of the Interior requirements.

Councilmember Beryl Feinberg said she would like to have a public hearing. Pierzchala said his proposed process included one before the Mayor and Council, but that he didn't want to tell the Planning Commission how to conduct its process.

"We need to be very clear that we are starting the process over," Newton told staff. Wasilak said he would consider taking all of the steps proposed by the Mayor and Council - area meeting, mail notification to parties of interest, Historic District Commission review, Planning Commission review, and Mayor and Council public hearing and review - and add a staff review of the revised plan.

Pierzchala said it is important that the HDC know it has the authority to go beyond a courtesy review in this case, and give its opinions on the merits of the project, and its impact on the surrounding historic site and district. "I second it, and think it needs to come in the form of a memo from the HDC to the Mayor and Council," Newton said.

Wasilak promised to formally outline his plan for how to proceed by the end of the week.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

County Council staff recommends using Carver, Westmore as bus depots

The Montgomery County Council will take up the controversial school bus depot issue this morning, but the Council staff report makes an equally controversial set of recommendations. It recommends parking Montgomery County Public School buses at the Carver Educational Services Center, and at 1000 Westmore Avenue, a property already purchased by the County for that purpose. Or, to use their convoluted language, they are "not recommending against" using them for bus parking.

It is hard to believe that staff could recommend this, after the ghastly litany of County abuses of the Lincoln Park neighborhood that was recited during a public hearing before the County Planning Board last week. That hearing concluded with the board recommending against acquisition of the Westmore site by the County - an irrelevant vote, as the County had already secretly purchased the site.

Council staff has also put the Blair Ewing Center on Avery Road back on the table, sure to be highly controversial in both Rockville and Aspen Hill. Use of the Blair Ewing Center site would create a domino effect, requiring moving the alternative education facilities there elsewhere. "Elsewhere" was English Manor Elementary School in Aspen Hill when this last came up. Avery Road was ultimately dismissed as a bus site after a well-organized opposition effort by Aspen Hill residents.

I am shocked - shocked - that Avery Road has risen from the dead. Of course, I'm joking, as I've been predicting this would happen for several months. The other site proposed for a permanent depot is the Oaks Landfill at 6001 Olney-Laytonsville Road. Both sites, particularly Olney-Laytonsville Road, are still within 6:00 AM-bus-honking earshot of nearby houses.
Residential neighborhoods lie
directly adjacent to a proposed
bus depot site at
6001 Olney-Laytonsville Road
(red pin at right)
We won't know the Council's reaction to the recommendations until later this morning. But the Council staff's intent seems to be the same as the County and MCPS: Pit neighborhoods against each other, and ultimately drop the depots where they conclude political power is weakest. Residents are simply gladiators in the arena for the Emperors-with-no-clothes' entertainment. The interesting twist here is that the residents affected by the Carver, Westmore and Avery Road sites have all been politically strong in their response so far.

The report suggests removing the Public Safety Academy and Gude Drive Landfill sites from consideration. And it recommends the Council not approve the Declaration of No Further Need for the existing Shady Grove bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way. In doing so, it assumes the County Executive can change the terms to not require the depot to be vacated and turned over to the developer in 2017. The County (a.ka. you, the taxpayer) could ultimately face legal action from that developer, which already has approval for 345 townhomes and 344 apartments on that property, known as Jeremiah Park.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Westmore bus depot contract the County Council wrought - what's their next move Tuesday? (Photos)

A picture is worth a thousand words - and here are pictures of the contract Montgomery County quietly signed to purchase 1000 Westmore Avenue for use as a school bus parking facility. 10 acres of undeveloped land in an industrial wasteland cost you, the taxpayer, $12 million at the same time that the County Council was raising your taxes to the highest level in history, and County employees were denied the wage increases guaranteed by their labor contracts.

As the Council prepares to take up the larger controversial issue of the County's "Smart Growth Initiative," and its requirement to find a new location for the Shady Grove bus depot, there are 3 things to watch for in Tuesday's worksession:

1. Will the County Council apologize to the affected communities, and admit that their votes brought us to this point?

Councilmembers, like hack actors ill-prepared for the role of a lifetime, attempted to pose as heroes-to-the rescue once the Carver Coalition was formed to fight a bus depot proposed for the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville. Problem is, the County Council are the very people who voted to approve funding for the land acquisition, design and construction of bus depots at Carver and Westmore.

That's right. The contract you see here was the direct result of a 2015 vote by the County Council, which provided the funds the County Department of General Services used to purchase the Westmore site. Whoops!

Likewise, a February 9, 2016 resolution passed unanimously by the County Council provided funds for the design and construction of a bus depot at Carver. Councilmember George Leventhal conveniently forgot about that vote when he appeared as a crusader for justice at a Carver-related public meeting. He proclaimed to have nothing to do with the Carver fiasco. When a citizen confronted him with the text of the February 9 resolution, and asked him to read it aloud, Leventhal refused to do so.

Leventhal later stated he had not read the resolution before voting for it, an incredible statement any way you slice it. Our councilmembers don't read the bills and resolutions they vote for?! Unreal.

The Council didn't admit their role then, and they haven't since. Tomorrow is a fabulous opportunity for them to belatedly admit that they alone had the true power to create this fiasco via these two votes, and their longtime support for the insane idea known as the "Smart Growth Initiative." Don't just bash DGS for an hour, own up to your major role in this mess.

2. Will Tuesday just be a back-and-forth between DGS, MCPS and the Council, which loves to hear itself talk? Or will the civic association leaders and municipal elected officials of Rockville and Gaithersburg have a seat at the table, as well?

3. Will the Council end the discussion by pulling the plug on the Smart Growth Initiative, by committing to not signing the Declaration of No Further Need for the existing bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way, thereby risking legal action by the developer?

What the Council hasn't admitted so far, but has a chance to acknowledge tomorrow, is that there is no acceptable site to relocate 410 school buses to within the borders of Montgomery County. Period.

The County has reviewed 200 properties in the desperate search for a depot. Choosing two adjacent to residential neighborhoods at Carver and Westmore proves the point that there is no dream site - otherwise, they wouldn't have risked the political uproar they now face.

Every single site discussed and dismissed in the past was in a residential area, from Potomac to the Webb Tract in Montgomery Village. Every community fought back, and they'll fight back on the Gude landfill (Derwood homes are directly adjacent) and Public Safety Academy (North Potomac homes are across the street) sites if DGS goes there next.

Only by pulling the plug will the County be unable to use the Westmore site for school bus parking. Of course, then the County (a.k.a. you, the taxpayer) will face legal action from the developer, and the costs and payouts that might entail. There again, the Council must be held accountable for its reckless actions in the Smart Growth/bus depot debacle. There must be consequences for their actions.

Tuesday is not a day for the Council to toast themselves as heroes, but a day to begin to face the music for their disregard for their constituents, and for prioritizing developers over people in Montgomery County.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rockville HDC recommends listing New Mark Commons on National Register of Historic Places

The Rockville Historic District Commission voted last night to recommend that the New Mark Commons development be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. John Hansman, President of the New Mark Commons HOA, said his community's addition to the list would be perfect timing for its 50th anniversary next year.

Hansman testified that the process began when he met a woman at his Bethesda church who had led the effort to list Carderock Springs. That Bethesda community just west of the Capital Beltway along River Road was also built by New Mark Commons' developer, Edmund J. Bennett.

Not everyone is on board for the honor, however. One NMC resident, who said he was also representing several neighbors who couldn't attend, expressed concerns about the impact of the designation. Many in teh community were not aware this process was underway, he said. There is a substantial amount of deferred maintenance in the community, he reported, such as wooden fences that need to be repaired or replaced. He feared that being added to the list would be used as an excuse to not keep the community looking fresh.

HDC Chair Rob Achtmeyer said maintenance issues are a problem in any aging community. He said that code enforcement by the City could address any of those upkeep problems that violate City code. Achtmeyer and preservation planner Sheila Bashiri assured the resident that he and his neighbors would have the opportunity to address the listing when the matter goes before the Mayor and Council, and when it is taken up by the Maryland Historical Trust. They also attempted to distinguish this honorary designation from the more-complicated historic designation, which requires approvals to make exterior changes to your home.

Commissioner Jessica Reynolds said she was comfortable that the community had been informed, and the commission voted to recommend the community be added to the list.

Planning Board disapproves Montgomery County acquisition of Westmore Ave. bus parking site

"They're trying to
strangle us"

Montgomery County Planning Board commissioners lambasted the County's Department of General Services' plan to acquire the WINX property at 1000 Westmore Avenue in Rockville, before voting to disapprove the acquisition. Their comments followed testimony by Rockville's mayor, residents, and civic leaders, which outlined a questionable process and a lack of transparency by the County. Commissioners were also shocked to learn that the DGS had secretly signed a sales contract with the landowner of 1000 Westmore on April 28, just days before requesting a mandatory referral review by the Board.

"It looks like the horse is already out of the barn," Commissioner Norman Dreyfuss said, after reviewing a copy of the executed contract submitted moments earlier by Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton. DGS, it became apparent, had not even shared the existence of the contract with the Planning Department. "The County is going to acquire this property, or default on the contract," Dreyfuss said.

Under the mandatory referral process, even the disapproval of the Board last night will not prevent the County from moving forward with its acquisition, and expected use as school bus parking for Montgomery County Public Schools. The County is desperately searching for several bus parking sites, so it can sell the existing MCPS bus depot in Shady Grove to a developer in a deal known as the "Smart Growth Initiative."

But powerful testimony by Lincoln Park residents showed the politically-treacherous road ahead for County politicians if they decide to press on with the Westmore plan.

"As far back as I can remember, we have been struggling to live in peace in Lincoln Park, and every few years we are fighting some monster that is threatening our security," said Fran Hawkins, a 69 year resident. "When they closed historic Lincoln Park High School (Lincoln High School opened in 1935 to serve black students shut out of County high schools by segregation), they parked buses there for decades," she noted of the MCPS Stonestreet Avenue property now home to decaying trailers. Those trailers replaced the buses when the County moved the depot to 16651 Crabbs Branch Way in Shady Grove, she recalled.

Of the County's abuse of her neighborhood, Hawkins said, “they’ve strangled us. They’re trying to strangle us. That’s the only way i can put it.”

A resident of Douglas Avenue noted that Lincoln Park is a 125-year-old community, and its streets were not well-planned or wide enough to handle hundreds of large buses passing in and out of the neighborhood. She said the quiet existence of the $12 million DGS contract and the way it has handled the process were "disturbing." She questioned how much DGS Deputy Director Greg Ossont actually knew about the community, after he was quoted in the newspaper as saying the buses would not be using neighborhood streets to reach main roads.

In fact, many criticized Ossont for refusing to meet with residents or visit the neighborhood in person, including commissioners. Suzan Pitman, President of the East Rockville Civic Association, said Ossont never even responded to her personal invitation, only sending a mass form email that went to multiple residents yesterday. She questioned how the County could afford to pay $12 million dollars for 10 acres of unimproved property, while having told teachers they wouldn't receive their full raise in FY-2017.

Most residents of the area near 1000 Westmore are "working class," and unable to hire attorneys to fight the County, Pitman said. And those residents are now disillusioned with County officials, she added. "Whatever trust we had that they were looking out for the best interests of residents is gone.”

Another nearby resident who is a teacher in MCPS, said she is tired of her neighborhood being "the disposal for everything the County doesn't want. It's not fair."

"No, we do not want the buses right across from our homes," declared Gladys Lyons of Ashley Avenue, who said she didn't want to "stand on my front porch and look directly over at the buses," and hear horns honking a 4:00 AM when buses start up in the winter.

Such an outcome is "a deplorable idea," said her neighbor, Virginia Cooper, whose husband has lived there more than 50 years. The thought of hundreds of school buses turning at the corner there "gives me shivers," Cooper said.

A Frederick Avenue resident didn't want to think of that, either. "I can't imagine what it will be like to have buses zipping up and down," she said. She opposes the land acquisition “because of the way it’s been done," with no transparency. She professed to be “skeptical of the County for very good reason,” citing the failure of MCPS to clear its own Stonestreet Avenue sidewalk of snow for 10 days this past winter.

Alexandra Destinito, VP of the Lincoln Park Civic Association, said her development is "the best kept secret in town" despite being near the railroad, a Washington Gas facility, "132 ugly rusting trailers" at the MCPS site on Stonestreet, and cut-through traffic from Gude Drive. "Now MCPS would like to add the bus depot," she said. The land swap at Shady Grove is called "smart growth," she said. "Smart for whom?"

Theresa Defino, a Rockville Housing Enterprises (RHE developed Legacy at Lincoln Park) commissioner, said, "this is some sort of otherworldly crazy puppet show going on." She asked the Board to "please do us all a favor and admit the emperor’s got no clothes here.”

The solidarity with Lincoln Park and East Rockville was joined by Christina Ginsberg of the Twinbrook Civic Association, who noted her community's "strong opposition" to the Westmore plan. "We have watched in dismay as MCPS has brought forward 3 sites in Rockville," Ginsberg said, also expressing Twinbrook's opposition to depots at Carver or at the Blair Ewing Center on Avery Road. All three sites are also opposed by the Aspen Hill Civic Association, she said, which submitted a letter to the Board indicating Aspen Hill's opposition.

Ginsberg criticized County Executive Ike Leggett's suggestion to communities opposing bus depots in their neighborhood to come up with another site themselves. "“I find this tactic extremely offensive,” she said. County officials "spectacularly failed in their jobs. It is not up to the citizens to do their jobs for them," she added.

Also supporting Lincoln Park was former Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo, now the President of the West End Citizens Association, and an active opponent of the Carver depot plan. He calculated that if MCPS stuck to its plan to park 100 buses at Carver, it would leave the other 310 to park at Westmore. Giammo invited commissioners to imagine they were residents of Ashley Avenue if that came to pass.

"What is the typical morning going to be like for you," Giammo asked. It would begin at 6:00 AM, he said, when all 310 buses would be started up and left to idle. 310 horns would honk, and 310 back-up beepers would sound, as those are two of the required tests run on every bus each morning. Those sounds would start at 4:00 on frigid winter mornings, he said.

310 bus drivers would all arrive by car into the neighborhood, Giammo said. Then 310 buses would begin to roll off the site, and not always via the routes MCPS is telling the public it will use now. "I can pretty much guarantee you most of these buses are going to go to the west and the south," Giammo predicted, "and they’re going to use residential streets to get there."

Giammo also criticized the process, calling the manner in which Leggett and his staff have approached the issue "profoundly disappointing," as well as the contract "that just shows up out of nowhere."

The timing of that contract in relation to the mandatory referral process "raises serious questions," Newton said. She noted the documents refer to a "land swap. What land is being swapped?" Newton questioned the placement of bus parking 50' away from homes, as well as the challenge of getting WSSC water and sewer service to the site. How can the County justify all of the impacts of moving the depot “simply to free up space to build more homes," she asked.

Newton has sought to avoid neighborhoods within the City from being pitted against each other in this contentious process, with multiple sites targeted by the County. The City provided bus transportation last night to assist residents who otherwise would have been unable to travel to speak in Silver Spring.

The citywide response, and emotional testimony, clearly swayed commissioners. "It’s really hard not to be extremely troubled by what the residents have brought forth,” said commissioner Amy Presley. She said she was not aware of the history of County abuse of the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Commissioners Marye Wells-Hartley and Natali Fani-Gonzalez strongly rebuked the County for both its proposal, and its lack of transparency, community outreach and respect for the residents.
Chair Casey Anderson
admonished County residents
and community leaders to
"step up to the plate."
What about the six-figure
salaried County officials and
deep-pocketed developers
who were tasked with finding a
depot site?
Board chair Casey Anderson took an oddly-different approach, partially defending the widely-thought-to-be indefensible County actions - while saying he was not defending them. “As opposed to everybody walking out of here saying ‘shame on the County,' " he said, residents should be asking themselves what they are going to do to help find a new depot. This was doubly strange, given that Ginsberg had earlier called similar admonishments by Leggett "extremely offensive."

Rockville "has a responsibility like the rest of us do," Anderson continued. "How are you going to help the county figure out where to put some of [the buses]? Step up to the plate.” Anderson challenged the leaders of Rockville and Gaithersburg to "exercise some political leadership," in having their jurisdictions be part of the solution. Residents across the County shouldn't say, “not here, not there, no not there either," Anderson scolded. "The buses need a place to park!”

For her part, Newton said the City is indeed ready to work with all parties to help find a permanent solution to the bus depot crisis. She mentioned the former Gude Drive landfill, and the soon-to-be-vacated County Public Safety Training Center, as two potential sites. Both sites would almost certainly face opposition from residents in Derwood and North Potomac, respectively.
Will the residents of Grinnell Dr.
and Dubuque Ct.
"step up to the plate" for hundreds
of horns honking at 6 AM?
Not likely
Will the folks
in these North Potomac
houses across from the
Public Safety Academy warm
to horn blasts at 4 AM on
frigid mornings? Don't
bank on it
The ball is now in the County Council's court for its discussion of the bus depot debacle next Tuesday. They voted to fund depots at Carver and Westmore, but have tried to sweep those votes under the rug. The reality is, they got us this far and created this mess along with Leggett.

Now the only way out - unless you believe that the County's review of 200 properties countywide somehow missed a "dream bus depot site" - is to either face the wrath of voters by placing these depots over their objections, or to risk the legal consequences of forcing the County to back out of the Shady Grove deal by refusing to approve the Declaration of No Further Need for the existing depot.

This will be entertaining political theater, indeed.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Chestnut Lodge staff report outlines options for handling revised plan submitted by developer

JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC is legally allowed to submit a revised project plan amendment under City of Rockville code Sec., Final Project Plan Application, a staff report posted ahead of Monday's Mayor and Council discussion says. The only question is how the revised plan should be handled. That plan was submitted on June 1, and some residents and historic preservation advocates have complained that they were not notified of the new plans by the developer.

Rockville's zoning chief Jim Wasilak has the authority to determine whether a revised plan requires additional steps and notification, or even has to be submitted as an entirely new application. Wasilak is asking the Mayor and Council to advise him on the process, given that the Mayor and Council will be the determining authority for the plan amendment.

The report says that the review process for the revised plan could consist of some or all of the following options: "written and electronic notification by the applicant as required for application submission and public meetings, an Area Meeting with the community conducted by the applicant, staff Development Review Committee (DRC) review and recommendation, Planning Commission review and recommendation, another Mayor and Council public hearing or another Discussion and Instructions session."

According to the report, the Mayor and Council could even determine that no additional steps are necessary, and then give staff instructions on how to proceed.

The applicant is proposing to reduce the proposed townhome building's footprint to be 10% larger than the historic Chestnut Lodge that stood on the site before it burnt down in a suspicious 2009 fire. And it is asking to reduce the number of townhome units from 7 to 6.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

County Council approves WSSC nominee who was sentenced for DWI

The Montgomery County Council, which has talked tough about drunk driving, voted yesterday to approve the nomination of T. Eloise Foster to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Foster was sentenced for driving while impaired, after being pulled over by a Maryland State Trooper on I-95 in 2007.

At the time, Foster retained her position as Maryland's budget secretary despite her sentencing.

Foster is the latest addition to the water and sewer utility with a spotty driving record. WSSC chief Carla Reid has crashed 5 WSSC-issued vehicles, totaling one of them in a rollover wreck on the Capital Beltway, according to The Washington Post.

Earlier this year, County Councilmember Roger Berliner said that "in order to take serious action against reckless, irresponsible and intoxicated drivers, we need legislators in Annapolis to pass measures that go after the people who should not be on the road with real penalties.” The following month, Council President Nancy Floreen wrote, "The Montgomery County Council joins our Police Chief in calling for the State of Maryland to strengthen our laws against drunk and impaired driving,"

Once again, the Montgomery County political cartel has failed to match words with actions.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Rockville Chamber of Commerce to host Community Fun Day on June 26

The Rockville Chamber of Commerce will host its first annual Community Fun Day on Sunday, June 26, 2016 from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM at the Rockville Senior Center at 1150 Carnation Drive.

Get ready to meet local businesses, while kids enjoy games and activities. They'll also be able to see police and fire vehicles and meet the first responders who use them. Everyone will enjoy free BBQ.

The event will go forward rain or shine, as the Senior Center has extensive indoor facilities that can be used if necessary. Donations for the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department are not required, but will be welcomed at the event.

Move by Chestnut Lodge developer stirs controversy in Rockville

Revised project plan
rendering of
JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC's
townhome proposal
Developer JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC has submitted a revised project plan amendment to the City of Rockville for its proposed townhome development at 500 W. Montgomery Avenue. The move has stirred controversy among residents and elected officials alike.

Last week, a City email stated that a revised plan had been submitted, and that the Mayor and Council would potentially vote on it next Monday, June 20. Subsequently, additional City emails were sent out to clarify that the Mayor and Council would instead be discussing "the review process" for the unusual filing. The original amendment failed to achieve majority support from either the Planning Commission or the Mayor and Council.

 It is now up to the City zoning chief to determine what the appropriate process is to follow in this case.

The email confusion, and the apparent fact that the new revised plan was not shared with any of the parties of record by the developer, brought former mayor and current West End Citizens Association President Larry Giammo and Peerless Rockville Executive Director Nancy Pickard out to address the issue during the Community Forum of last night's Mayor and Council meeting.

During Old/New Business later in the meeting, the Mayor and Council discussed the issue further, but no action was taken in terms of voting. One question debated was whether or not the Mayor and Council should seek advice from outside counsel on the matter, or rely on the City Attorney.
Revised site plan, which
drops the number of units
to 6 townhomes
Of what little information is available as of press time, the revised plan reduces the number of townhomes from seven to six. The controversial rear design, including garages, remains intact. Most of the filing simply makes the case for why this plan complies with both the City master plan and historical preservation standards. By removing one unit, the length of the project is slightly reduced horizontally, but still does not resemble the original lodge. Opponents of the townhome plan have argued that the original agreement between the City and the original developer remains in effect, and requires a multifamily condo building. With Chestnut Lodge having burnt down in 2009, their position is that the developer must replace the former mental institution with a building of similar proportions, and with the type of housing units that the agreement was based upon.
Developer's new building
footprint comparison between
townhome proposal (blue dotted
line) and the original
Chestnut Lodge (grey filled area)
The new footprint in the revised plan now increases 10% over the original lodge's. What the next step is, will be determined by the Mayor and Council next Monday evening.

Town Center parking solutions miss the target for Rockville business owners

"We're basically
slaves now"

The Mayor and Council discussed solutions for the parking woes of merchants and patrons in Rockville's Town Center last night, as a follow-up to a February worksession on the topic. But the proposals outlined did not address the bane of most Town Center business owners - the competitive disadvantage of 24/7 paid parking in Rockville Town Square versus the free parking available at competing developments like Downtown Crown and Rio/Washingtonian Center.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and councilmembers considered how to improve wayfinding signage, change City-controlled parking meter enforcement policies (such as using yellow cards for a 5-minute grace period), how sign ordinance limitations might prevent more effective parking signage, whether a consultant should be hired and at what cost, returning the popular Wednesday farmers market to Regal Row, restoring holiday banners to the Town Center area, and having regular consultation meetings with business owners and other stakeholders.

But, invited to the podium by Newton to share their initial reactions, several Town Center business owners said the discussion avoided the main issue - the cost of parking in the garages at Rockville Town Square.

"You don't understand how much we're suffering," said the owner of California Tortilla on E. Montgomery Avenue in Regal Row. "We're basically slaves now," to a parking situation that's deterring business, and the high rents they must pay, he said.

Mellow Mushroom owner Danny Trahan suggested the City save money on hiring a consultant, and listen to the business owners instead. Trahan estimated that the current paid parking situation is costing Rockville Town Square businesses $5 million in sales. By allowing free parking at least during strategic times like evenings and weekends, the increased revenue could refill City coffers and pay for free parking, Trahan argued.

Trahan said he is willing to put up money to help solve the problem, if selling advertising space in garages and in the public square would help offset the cost of free parking. He suggested building a dome structure in the square to allow activities to continue during inclement weather, as has been done in Reston Town Center. Advertising could be sold on the structure, as well as on signs in the garages, he said. Trahan said he would be willing to purchase signage in both locations to promote Mellow Mushroom.

Scott Feldman of Giuseppe's Pizza, where some patrons have stopped going because of parking costs and unfair meter ticketing policies, asked the Mayor and Council to compare the activity in Rockville Town Center on weekend nights to that in Downtown Crown and Rio. "You'll see a big difference," he promised. Many have cited the lack of wait times at Town Center restaurants on weekend nights, in comparison to hour-waits at Rio and Crown, as a metric showing how paid parking is killing business.

But landlords in the Town Center were not prepared to cut them a break at the February worksession. None attended last night's discussion. In February, several noted that there's no such thing as free parking. "If [merchants] want to have free parking, they can have free parking, It's just a matter of paying us," Duball, LLC president and principal Marc Dubick, developer of the Upton/Cambria Hotel and Suites building, said then.

Councilmember Julie Palakovich Carr made a very good point, that there are more garages than the ones in Rockville Town Square in Town Center, and that it would be difficult to have a free parking policy that covered all of them.

But the City is in a real parking pickle that could threaten the future of its Town Center, business owners said. Customer counts were down during the Duball construction, and now Hometown Holidays taste ticket redemption is dwindling in recent years, as well, the owner of Ben and Jerry's said. While the City can refuse to take action on the unpopular paid parking that gives Rockville a bad reputation in the region, he acknowledged, it risks finding many of its downtown shops "boarded up" if they go out of business as a result.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Leggett's WSSC nominee sentenced for DWI in 2007

T. Eloise Foster, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett's nominee to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, was sentenced for driving while impaired in Howard County in 2007. She was sentenced to unsupervised probation, alcohol counseling, 10 hours of community service, and fined $200, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Foster was pulled over by a Maryland state trooper on Interstate 95 in Howard in June 2007. She failed several sobriety tests, and was charged. Foster was budget director for the state of Maryland at the time.

Leggett, who was a victim of a drunk driver himself in a 2009 crash, called for tightening drunk driving laws in December 2015. The County Council is scheduled to interview Foster Tuesday morning at 11:00 AM. They are then scheduled to confirm her appointment 55 minutes later.

"The Montgomery County Council joins our Police Chief in calling for the State of Maryland to strengthen our laws against drunk and impaired driving," Council President Nancy Floreen wrote to the Montgomery County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly in February of this year.

Drivers with interesting driving records seem to be joining WSSC often these days. The Washington Post reported that the agency's latest chief was involved in five accidents while driving WSSC vehicles. She totaled one of those WSSC vehicles in a rollover accident on the Capital Beltway, the Post reported.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Rockville neighborhood could be listed on National Register of Historic Places

A process that began in 2012 has culminated in the nomination of New Mark Commons to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, pending review by the Rockville Historic District Commission. That review will take place at the commission's next meeting, on Thursday, June 16.

Listing on the register gives an honorary recognition of the historic significance and character of a place, but does not prevent architectural changes to homes, or require the review of the HDC to make such changes. It does require any project involving federal funds, licenses or permits to be reviewed by the federal agency involved to determine if the project will have an adverse impact on the historic character of the listed property.

Inclusion on the register also makes communities and homeowners eligible for historic preservation grants.

The nomination acknowledges New Mark Commons' place in history as an example of "Situated Modernism."  Builder Edmund J. Bennett and architects Keyes, Lethbridge, & Congdon emphasized open space, amenities and mature trees. The community was promoted as "a Twentieth Century village that's one foot in the future and a step back to a better time." Like its contemporaries Reston and Columbia, it also features a lake, even though it reduced Bennett's profits to build it.

Included in the staff report and attachments are many other interesting details on the development and features of New Mark Commons. It's very much worth a read for those interested in Rockville history, planning, architecture, and the times in which this neighborhood was constructed.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Planning commission approves new Rockville shopping center (Photos)

A plan for a new shopping center at 1401 Research Boulevard got the green light from the Rockville Planning Commission last night. The unanimous vote by commissioners means the Rockshire neighborhood will once again have retail options within walking distance of their homes. And via their bikes, as one of the most-discussed issues was the question of just how great the demand would be for bike parking at this property.

The new shopping center is currently branded as Research Row. It will include a 40,000 square foot fitness center, with swimming pool and full-size basketball court facilities; a drive-thru fast food restaurant close to the Route 28 side of the property; an in-line retail building (the latest term for "strip mall") with office space; and a smaller-than-usual 28560 SF grocery store building (grocery stores can be 60-70,000 SF, or even bigger in the case of Wegmans). Getting a grocery store tenant could be critical to the success of this retail center, with Rockshire having lost its Giant store.

Commissioner David Hill asked the applicant, FP Research Boulevard, LLC, if their fitness center was viable. The city is experiencing "a saturation of fitness facilities," Hill noted.

Adam Davis, a Vice President at Foulger-Pratt, said that the gym structure will be "a pretty generic 40000 square foot box" that could easily be converted to other retail uses, if necessary.

Other concerns included how traffic exiting Hurley Avenue from the site onto inbound W. Montgomery Avenue would affect already-congested rush hour traffic trying to reach I-270, and the dangers of cars trying to turn left onto Research Boulevard from the curb cuts on that side of the property. Signals and striping will be modified for both roads, representatives for the applicant said.
Planning Commission
Chair Charles Littlefield
While not the fault of the applicant, the downsides of a Countywide push by political leaders to replace office parks with residential, and to a lesser extent, retail, surfaced during the nearly-four-hour discussion. The prospect of losing high-wage office and research jobs (one structure removed for this project was a laboratory) did not sit well with commission chair Charles Littlefield. Replacing those high-wage jobs with retail and restaurant positions is "just not good for people's economic well-being," Littlefield said, although he was supportive of the project in general.

A second problem of the conversion - the rest of the office/research facilities (there's a reason the road has its name, after all) are still there. One of them, a biomanufacturing facility that manufactures vaccines, is directly adjacent to the future shopping center.

The site manager for the biomanufacturing facility said unidentified cars and trucks are always a security concern for them as it is. With truck traffic now increasing with the shopping center, that could present a problem. The site manager said their federal contracts depend on having tight security for their facility. It takes four keycard swipes just to get from his car to his office, he said.

Trucks are examined closely for fear that they may contain explosives, and be used in a terrorist attack on their facility, which handles dangerous diseases its vaccines cure or treat. They not only are concerned about the standard terror threats from abroad, he said, but also from the Animal Liberation Front. While their facility has no animals on-site, he said, the ALF could mistakenly believe there were.

Hill said he was "concerned" about the security issues raised by the site manager, who said he was not aware of any facility like his in the region that was this close to a retail center.

I'm hoping that drive-thru restaurant will bring a new fast food brand not currently in Rockville, or at least return one that left town in recent years. "Two menu boards that taper down to one lane at the pickup window" sounds a lot like a common layout at newer McDonald's locations. It would be nice to get a Hardee's, Jack in the Box or White Castle in terms of new ones, or bring back KFC or A&W.

Hill called Research Row "a great addition to this area of the city."