GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
No blood! Just bruises
2010’s budget bloodbath was not repeated in 2011, to everyone’s surprise and relief. Takoma Park city elections, however, raised some nasty bruises.
Three new councilmembers were voted into office a few weeks ago: Seth Grimes (Ward1), Tim Male (Ward 2), and Kay Daniels-Cohen (Ward 3), more in one election than in at least a decade. Not coincidentally, more sitting councilmembers stepped down in one election year than in at least a decade — maybe ever.
Wanting their lives back, veteran councilmembers Dan Robinson, Josh Wright, and Colleen Clay all announced last year that they would not seek re-election. As, one by one, they announced their departure, the economy plunged into recession and the area was rocked by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Oh, you thought those events were NOT CONNECTED?
Little official council business was conducted after October, the start of the election season. The old council did push through a Recreation Department “vision statement” and a sidewalk policy so the new council wouldn’t have to start from scratch on those issues.
There were four contested races, but few ideological clashes in the election. There was a bit of a difference between Ward 3 candidates Mike Graul and Kay Daniels-Cohen, Graul being more critical of city government. Ironically, in the closest, most rancorous campaign, the two candidates Lorig Charkoudian and Tim Male were very similar. So, they fought over the small stuff: personalities, endorsements, how the other side was running their campaign and who was running it, and rumors. In that race Tim Male won by only seventeen votes.
The “losers:” Lorig Charkoudian, Mike Graul, Jeffrey Noel-Nosbaum, Barrie Howard, and Eric Mendoza have all gained stature in our bloodshot eyes for being willing to serve and for having the bravery to stick their necks out.
Now, all eyes are on the freshmen councilmembers to see what changes they will bring to city government – or how long it takes them to be assimilated into the status quo.
A re-cap of the old council’s year leading up to elections gives you an idea of what the new council will be dealing with, Dear Readers!
Massive development is rushing at Takoma Park like a mad rhino. It is coming to the intersection of University and New Hampshire Avenues the corridors those streets form on the eastern side of the city. Now an ugly but honest vista of strip malls, the area will be transformed into mixed commercial and residential use, serviced by the soon-to-be-built light rail Purple Line. The developers are Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The county border runs right through that area. They have a plan, actually they EACH have a plan, and everyone hopes the two plans are well coordinated.
The city managed to trip the charging rhino. Yay for us! The council – along with residents next to the development – was ticked off. They complained to the county council that “Each successive version of the Urban Design Guidelines presented by the Planning department staff is more generic, contains less guidance, and is not specific to our community.” The county, which was hoping to get this plan approved by the end of 2011, brought the process to a halt so they can go back and address the city’s concerns early this year.
Unlike 2010 the city’s budget was not sliced up like the victim of a chainsaw massacre. Some unexpected revenue came in, so to everyone’s relief the council did not have to raise taxes or the tax rate. There’s also the speed camera fund, which the city is increasingly relying on as a revenue source. They put in another speed camera too. But, the speed cams are for SAFETY, not an income source, the city insists. Of course they are.
In 2010 citizens turned out to public hearings to plead for lower taxes and spending. In 2011 they turned out to ask the city to spend money — to hire a sustainability coordinator.
Nobody can tell you exactly what a sustainability coordinator would do for the city, other than put it on the Environmental Cutting Edge. It would have something to do with getting the city’s carbon footprint down to the size of an ant’s. Whether “the city” means just the city government or the residential city, too, is up for debate (as new council found at their Jan. 3 meeting).
The idea came from the city’s Task Force on Environmental Action (TFEA), a committee of local environmentalists. The task force’s top recommendation a couple of years ago was for the city to hire a sustainability coordinator. But, even the environmentalists knew that a recession is not a good time to recommend increased spending. So, they suggested holding off until the city could afford it. And they all noticed the unexpected revenue that come into the city’s money bag – so they all walked or biked (of course) down to the public budget hearings to say “ok, NOW is the time!!”
The council as a whole was not eager to make a new hire – though Josh Wright especially fought for it. Thanks to him and to community pressure they voted to do it.
And that’s as far as they got. The more they thought about it, the more they realized they were in the dark. Would it be better to hire a contractor rather than create a new position? What exactly were a sustainability coordinator’s duties? Would the duties change? Was the coordinator’s focus the city government or the whole city? AND, would they continue to have the funds to pay a salary?
Another TFEA recommendation was to ban leaf blowers – a suggestion that’s been annoying the council for years. They made it go away for a while when they referred the issue to the TPEA, but then it came back, trying to jump into the council’s lap like a puppy. The council tossed it a bone, a very small one. They banned gasoline-powered leaf blower use – by city employees. This, assured the Public Works director, was no big deal. The PW employees did not agree – and some of them showed up to complain about it to the council. This gave the council slight pause, but they went ahead with the ban.
It was a semi-weaselly move by the council. Councilmember Colleen Clay pointed out that the ban was “not quite hitting the target.” The problem, proponents of a wider ban said, is not not the Public Works Department blowing leaves on a few large fields, it is thousands of residents blowing leaves on their “tiny plots,” residents using blowers under their neighbor’s windows, or commercial firms dispatching four guys with blowers to blast “a single leaf” or scrap of paper from a lot.
On the other side, environmentalists had no credible response to the council’s concerns: who would enforce such a ban, what exemptions would be allowed, would it include commercial lawn-care firms, and if not would those firms refuse to take jobs in Takoma Park — or charge more?
2011 was the Year of the Walk War. In January residents challenged city plans to install new sidewalks on street-sides that don’t have them in Ward 2. Catherine Tunis, who served on the city’s Task Force for Environmental Action, city’s Environmental Committee, said sidewalks are unnecessary on the small streets in question, and would damage the environment. Residents did not want to “lose” a piece of their front yards, and some had privacy concerns. Tunis said the money from the speed camera fund, slated in the city budget for sidewalks, could be used elsewhere. There were complaints from both the pro- and anti-sidewalk partisans that the city’s sidewalk planning process was annoying and ineffectual.
The city put sidewalk-building on hold to review the matter. This angered people in other wards who wanted sidewalks but would now have to wait longer.
In May the council voted 4 to 2 to keep sidewalk funding at the same level as in the 2012 budget. The anti-sidewalk forces continued to complain and submit petitions.
In September the council approved a sidewalk installation policy – intended to make the planning process more resident-friendly and “democratic.” Still, the council made it clear that they weren’t about to let one or just a few individuals block a sidewalk on their street that would benefit the community as a whole.
Your Gilbert suggests the city build boardwalks like in the Wild West. They would be cheaper and more permeable than asphalt, and the pro- and anti-sidewalk folks could stage shoot-outs on them.
TP LIquor licenses
The council wants beer and wine stores. It took them a year to run the idea through the public-hearing and resolution-reading mill, and they proudly carried an application for the required law-changes that would allow that to the state legislature. To be exact, to the Alcoholic Beverages Subcommittee of the Maryland House Economic Matters Committee. The committee pi . . . er, dampened the city’s application and handed it back. Try again next year, Sunshine, and NEXT time, don’t ask for special favors, said the committee, zipping up its fly.
The city had the GALL to include a provision for local control. The usual procedure is that the county grants the liquor sales license. The city has no power over who gets or doesn’t get a license. So, being Who We Are, we asked for that power. Mistake!
Try, try again – that’s what the council will do this year.
Do the Limbo
It’s astonishing how a huge hospital can just hang over the city in a state of limbo for years, but that’s what the Washington Adventist Hospital (WAH) has been doing – or not doing. The hospital has made plans to move, but it has to get state permission to do so. Nobody, expect maybe the WAH board of directors, knows what’s going to happen to the WAH campus – even if they DON’T get permission, because they’ve made it clear that the current space is too small for future needs. Like we said – it’s in limbo. That could change AT ANY MOMENT! The Maryland Health Care Commission, which governs whether a hospital can relocate or not, will issue it’s decision in early 2012.
Meanwhile, the city’s Washington Adventist Hospital Land Use Committee presented a scathing report to the city council in June. What the report boils down to is that the WAH MAY be shafting Takoma Park. The WAHLUC complained that the hospital is being suspiciously unforthcoming with information, and that the “wellness village” it promises will replace it, is quite possibly a sham.
The State Highway Administration (SHA) wants the city to take Flower Avenue off its hands. It is no longer a state highway, so it is of no use to them. The city would sort of like to annex it and turn it into a “green” street. They were worried about the cost, though. but when they worked out that the street has an income (who knew?) of $10,000 a year in state funds, and that they could fund it entirely with grants, not from general revenues, they decided to go ahead and annex it. They still were not entirely happy that their efforts will benefit -and raise the property values of – the residents on the Silver Spring side of the street for free.
The Recreation Department was the old council’s Child That Could Do No Right. Former councilmember Colleen Clay, especially, singled the Rec. Dept out for it’s programs, record keeping, transportation, etc. When councilmember Terry Seamens once suggested making Rec. Dept changes, and a huge crowd showed up to defend it. So, as critical as they are, the council has been leery of suggesting any more big changes. Until last year.
A city Recreation Committee researched other city Rec. Departments, and recommended, among other things, that the department offer a wider range of programs and classes, stretching beyond sports and field trips to teaching “life skills.” The council tentatively on board – but none of them liked the proposed new name, the “Recreation, Parks, and Culture Department.” They didn’t to spend money on programs that were neither needed nor cost-effective. And they didn’t want to write a new “vision statement” that the department staff could find loopholes in, as they felt the department staff had done before.
So, even though pressed for time, the old council pushed through what they hoped was an iron-clad new Public Works Vision Statement in it’s last session – without the proposed name change!
Plant that tree!
As they like to do, the council tinkered with the city’s tree ordinance. This is their eternal task – to mollify the residents who feel severely punished by some provision of the ordinance, without gutting it. This revision gives residents a choice of street trees to plant in public spaces. It takes care of the citizens who felt their lives were endangered by the gum-trees the city planed on their streets. The revisions also allow “pre-planting” trees for those who plan on taking down a mature tree in the future. Each live mature tree taken down must be replaced – somewhere in the city – by several saplings, an expensive proposition. Saplings planted beforehand will now count as “replacement” trees.
Snowballs in Hell
For first time ever, the council rescinded a speed bump! They risked losing votes on Sherman Avenue by changing their minds some weeks after approving a speed bump there. The street is just too steep, they said. They had staff write up some speed bump guidelines which set a restriction on how steep a grade a speed bump location can be. But, the new guidelines also make it possible to place speed bumps closer together. This is odd because the rest of the world has been inching away from speed bumps in favor of other “traffic-calming” methods.
The Takoma/Langley Sector development may be a charging rhino, but development in Old Town has been a cuddly kitten. Everyone is thrilled with the new hardware store and eateries. Not so cute was Walgreen’s request that the city abandon it’s alley right-of-ways on their plot at the corner of New Hampshire and University. They denied they were up to anything mega-development-like, but they wouldn’t admit that, would they?
With revenue cuts on their minds, the council took a stern look at how much money it gives away. The city, in effect, lost $61,195 in revenue in PILOT deals in the previous year. PILOT is a Payment In Lieu of Taxes. But, that’s misleading – there is NO payment in lieu of taxes, there is NO payment, or a reduced payment. These PILOT deals are given to private/public developers who are building or own public and affordable housing. The council talked tough when the developers came around to beg, but they still gave each at least a part of what they asked for.
Public Works relief
The Public Works Department renovations are moving along pretty much on schedule and on budget. This is a huge relief to the council and the city staff. Memories of the community center disaster linger.
Although it was all paid for with grant money, the council was horrified that it cost $32,600 for dais lights that don’t glare in councilmembers eyes. This also included the cost of putting on/off buttons on their microphones. They did not take Terry Seamens up on his offer to install all the mic buttons for $48.
On to 2012!