GRANOLAPARK: The times they are a changin’?

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

Is it the haircut, the new shoes, the new after-shave? What makes the Takoma Park city council look so different?

OH, it’s the three new members! Three out of seven are freshly elected, and it’s starting to look like that’s enough to change how the council acts at times.

For example, when petitioners asked for a new crossing guard, in a fraction of the time the old council would have said “Do you think we’re MADE of money?” and proposed a task force to look into it, the new council just dipped the ladle into the bucket and poured cash into the petitioner’s outstretched hands. Is that enough? they asked. Wouldn’t you like TWO crossing guards? We got plenty here.

That bucket of cash is the speed camera fund. The new Takoma Park city council may prove to be as  fiscally conservative as the old one when it comes to keeping taxes and tax rates down, but when it comes to the speed camera fund, they are – this one time – ticket-and-spend liberals.

Complex complications

The petitioners want a school crossing guard to assist their children across the busy and complex intersection at Takoma Junction – about a third to a half mile walk from the city’s cluster of elementary and middle schools. A state road, Route 410 (aka “The East-West Highway”) runs through Takoma Junction, and the State Highway Administration (SHA) is notoriously unfriendly to pedestrians. So, the next part – getting the signal timing adjusted so crossers have more time – will be considerably tougher. Doubtless the city will be asked to weigh in – but the city is already in negotiations with SHA over this same stretch of road. You can bet, Dear Readers,  that the Takoma Junction Task Force will recommend the city ask SHA for signal timing adjustments on those very same lights. Since the task force’s object is to unsnarl the rush-hour traffic jams, it seems to Your Gilbert that this might be at odds with the crossing guard petitioner’s request.

Another complication is the city’s current negotiations with SHA about road maintenance, underlying which is a disagreement about who owns the road or the land under it, and what “ownership” means. The next time you drive through Takoma Junction, Dear Reader, be impressed with all the unseen forces at work all around you. Perhaps the city should hire a New Age shaman to cleanse the Junction’s essence with crystals and herbs.

Faster!

Back to the crossing guard – the city manager Barbara Matthews said the salary would cost the city $11,000 a year. The police chief Ronald Riccuci said that two guards would be best, given the two-part crossing and heavy traffic. But, the council voted for one guard at this time. Later, they said, when the crossing is established, they could add another. They could also approach the SHA with a request for an improved pedestrian crossing – once they can give them a pedestrian count that shows heavy use.

Freshmen councilmembers Seth Grimes and Kay Daniels-Cohen, who said she was “passionate” about this issue, pushed to speed up the 90-day hiring process. Chief Ricucci said they might be able to do it in 60 days, but cautioned that time was needed for background checks. After all, he noted, these are people who would have children’s lives in their hands.

Moving swiftly, the city posted the opening for crossing-guard two days after the January 17 meeting.

The city speed cameras brought in a bit over a million dollars last year (after subtracting about $650,000 for the vendor). Roughly $300,000 of the million paid for three police position salaries and benefits. The rest went to various safety projects such as sidewalk construction and upgrading.

 What’s cooking?

Another example of change. The council got knocked off it’s accustomed track by a freshmen councilmember again. Another bunch of citizens came waving a petition, this one asking for city council support. They want to change church zoning. The city council can’t do anything about zoning, that’s up to the county. But,  the citizens want city council backing to give them more credibility and clout. There’s a county council bill that would make the change, introduced by county at-large councilmember George Leventhal (a city resident).

They want to re-zone churches so their cooking facilities can be “shared-use community kitchens.” This would allow local, “micro-enterprize,” food entrepeneurs to use church kitchens to make their products. The Takoma Park Presbyterian Church is behind this effort and it was championed by Ward 2 city council candidate Lorig Charkoudian last fall. She lost by a whisker, but she continues to pop up at council meetings to promote the community commercial kitchen idea. She’s supported by councilmember Seth Grimes who ran on a slate of sorts with Charkoudian and now-councilmember Kay Daniels-Cohen. Tim Male, Charkoudian’s opponent in that election also supports the effort.

Just give us your support, please, said the petitioners, and we’ll be out of your hair.

Oh, of COURSE, said the council. But wait! We have a little concern here. And maybe one with this bit. So, we’re going to qualify our support and ask for a small change . . .

And away the council went on the well-worn Tinkering Path to Self-Assertion City, where they come to the You Shall Not Pass, so called because it is often blocked by the overflowing Who Do You Think You Are River. The old council took this route several times last year on the way to get its can kicked in Annapolis – requesting city control over liquor licensing.

But, this time, before they could get very far, newcomer Seth Grimes ran around to the front to trip them. He had to do it several times, but he finally brought them to a halt. If you don’t give your unconditional support, he told them, just forget it! He pointed out that presenting what amounts to a city counter-proposal to Leventhal’s bill would be EMBARRASSING. To say the least.

Oh, . . . . OK, said the council. And they voted their unconditional support. Grimes had to make a deal, though – he pledged to convey the council’s concerns to county councilmember Leventhal via less official means. And perhaps that way they’d be addressed in the final legistation.

Yet another difference with this new council is that Grimes has referred during a couple of meetings to the back-channel e-mail communications and negotiations between councilmembers. This was not a frequent topic during the previous council’s meetings. From his comments one gets the impression that a lot of council work gets done via e-mail.

Your Gilbert is not sure whether this revelation deserves an “Oh, HO!”  or a “Ho hum.”

Whose streets?

More on sidewalks, and people are as tetchy about them as ever, if not more so. The last two council meetings Jan 9 and 17 featured discussions and citizen comments about the city’s proposed sidewalk policy.  In brief – some people don’t want ’em, others do, and everyone complains about the city’s sidewalk-building planning process. So, the council tried to fix the process – adding “transparency,” “democracy” and all that good stuff – and create a way for the opinion-steeped residents or our beloved miniopolis to vote for or against sidewalks in their neighborhood.

There have been tense discussions, councilmember-to-councilmember, councilmember-to-citizen, and citizen-to-citizen, on whether the people who get to vote should be “residents,” “owners,” or “owners and residents,” and how wide an area should be included in the vote – the immediate block, the adjoining blocks, people from a distance who want to pass through the area? And how is this criteria the same or different from that used to decide on speed bumps, tree plantings, and every other decision that people get riled about? It boils down to one side saying only people whose property abuts the street should have the ultimate say, and the other side saying that the streets belong to and are the concern of the wider public, so it should be included in the decision.

Anti-sidewalk crusader Catharine Tunis told the council that their proposed new policy is “beating people [who don’t want sidewalks] over the head.”  She objected to language that allowed the council to override neighborhood votes “if you don’t like the outcome.” She said that only the people immediately adjacent to the road where sidewalks were proposed should have a vote. Sidewalks, she said, destroy habitat and trees. Streets could be made safer for pedestrians by lowering the speed limit to 15 MPH.  She offered a small olive branch, saying that the city should work with anti-sidewalk residents to find solutions “that are not divisive.”

The council gave her a collective “we’re not the ones being divisive, here,” look.

Another anti-sidewalk resident complained that putting a sidewalk in someone’s right-of-way is “terribly destructive” to their property. A right-of-way legally obligates a landowner to allow access by the government, public, or utility to a designated piece of property regardless of land ownership. This includes the right to build on it. In this case, the city has a right-of-way alongside any city street in case it wants to build a sidewalk there. This is spelled out in property deeds, so landowners know not to build anything permanenet on the right-of-way – unless they are willing to risk losing it.

One resident who was at the Jan. 17th meeting to address another issue spontaneously spoke up on this one – she said that as a mother of small children she was all for sidewalks because they made it easier to get around, were safer than roads – even if traffic were slowed – for walkers, strollers, and kids on roller skates and bicycles.

– Gilbert

About the Author

Gilbert
Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.