Friday, January 13, 2017

Could Bethesda join Rockville as an incorporated city?

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.

1 comment:

  1. Although there is a significant amount of truth in Rockville Nights new banner, "Rockville's leading source for breaking news..." it is a sad state of affairs that a broken down newspaper with almost no circulation (Sentinel) and a couple of blogs constitute the extent of the fourth estate in the City of Rockville in 2017.