Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Rockville public hearing on school overcrowding sets up dramatic vote next week
"I don't want this to be a 'Wegmans or schools' issue," developer B.F. Saul's Todd Pearson told the Mayor and Council at a packed meeting that continued past 11:00 PM last night. But Pearson added that he had "serious concerns" as to whether or not B.F. Saul could meet the requirements of its lease with the grocery giant if elected officials punt the decision past next Monday night. In December, Pearson had warned that Wegmans might back out of the deal if their timeline for the Twinbrook Quarter development is not met. Wegmans is currently expected to be the retail anchor of that development at the northeast corner of Rockville Pike and Halpine Road.
Councilmember Virginia Onley noted that Wegmans had already ended negotiations with Lerner at their former White Flint Mall site when that property became entangled in a prolonged court battle. The news of the store's lease at Twinbrook Quarter has been the main generator of excitement about the development among the public. But based on resident and civic association testimony last night, the public also largely opposes the proposed allowance of 150% of capacity school overcrowding.
"I'm not wedded to 150%," Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said after all testimony had been heard, expressing a willingness to "go lower" to reach a deal. Pierzchala was the one who proposed the changes now on the table last year. The changes were put forward after Pierzchala realized that existing 120% overcrowding standards would trigger a development moratorium, freezing the Twinbrook Quarter project until Montgomery County Public Schools provide new capacity (although some residents have pointed out that this was known over a year ago). Resident Brigitta Mullican suggested that the city entirely drop any school test from the APFS, arguing that MCPS has total control over the matter and the city has none.
With no new compromise proposals yet emerging, a dramatic showdown is set for next Monday night at 7:00 PM, when the Mayor and Council are scheduled to vote on the matter. The drama will not only be from the potential for an elected official to be blamed for losing Wegmans or worsening school overcrowding, but also from the fact that the body is short a member. The recent resignation of Councilember Julie Palakovich Carr, who was elected to the General Assembly last November, leaves an even number of voters on the Council. Newton and Councilmember Beryl Feinberg could counterbalance the "Team Rockville" votes of Onley and Pierzchala, resulting in deadlock.
Newton held out some hope for a mutually-beneficial compromise to be worked out in the next five days. "It's not a one-person decision. It's not a two-person decision. It's a city decision," she said.