GRANOLAPARK: 2014, Year of the YETTIE

Photo: The Young Activist Club and the Takoma Park city council following the Nov. 10 polystyrene ban vote. Photo by Brandie Peterson.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

And so another Takoma Park city council year begins – they keep coming back no matter how much we insult them. Maybe if we remind them of all that happened since January 2014, they’ll realize the futility of it all.

Update, JAN. 8: Takoma Park city manager Brian Kenner resigned Today effective Jan. 31, 2015. The city council scheduled a special session Jan. 8 to discuss how to deal with the situation. Last time the city was manager-less  – from Sept. 2012 to June 2013 – Deputy City Manager Suzanne Ludlow was Acting City Manager.

The Takoma Junction proposal process was Kenner’s baby. He cited long experience in government land development – often in the teeth of fierce critics who said the process was so flawed that all the bidders had grounds for law-suits. Those critics had a strong bias against the process because it rejected their favorite proposal, mind you.

They were having an effect, however. As the issue was left in 2014, it looked like the the people who wanted to roll the process back to the beginning were getting some traction with the council.

Now, without the process’s mastermind to keep it rolled out, what’s going to happen?

Of course, choosing a new city manager just became a big issue to deal with in 2015. Time to form another city manager selection citizen’s committee. Will this prove to be as contentious as the last city-manager hire? In 2012 the council fought amongst itself over whether to require city residency for city managers and other top staff. The vote that defeated that proposal was challenged, and the controversy dragged on for weeks. See Granolapark’s summary of 2012 for the details.

Would this happen again? It depends on whether someone – a councilmember or citizen group – blames Kenner’s resignation, or some negative aspect of his work, on the fact that he didn’t live in Takoma Park.

We return you to our regularly scheduled column.

Downs and ups

The biggest Takoma City Council news of 2014 was also the saddest. Ward 3 councilmemeber Kay Daniels-Cohen died Feb. 20, 2014, barely a month into her second 2-year term. The city lost a strong advocate for Takoma Junction, the city recreation programs, urban gardening and much more.

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Kay Daniels-Cohen campaigning for council, 2011.

A closely contested special election April 8 placed Kate Stewart in the empty Ward 3 seat.

Terry Seamens, Ward 4 councilmember came close to having a heart attack May 11. He caught it in time, but went under the knife for an open-heart by-pass surgery May 15. He recovered quickly. He was able to walk the entire route of the city July 4th parade less than two months later.

The year’s high point was the polystyrene ban, The council happily knuckled under to a bunch of elementary and middle-school kids Nov. 10. After years of Young Activist Club lobbying, they passed an ordinance banning use polystyrene food containers use in city food-service businesses. The ordinance was named “The Young Activist Act of 2014.”

2014 top events/issues

• Takoma Junction redevelopment plans
• Town-hall meeting on crime Feb. 25
• Ward 3 special election
• Civil rights and license plate data
• The proposed dog park
• Your Gilbert coined the term “YETIES” – Young Entitled Technophiles, to describe a growing Takoma Park demographic.

2014 issues that stalled

• The planned departure of Washington Adventist Hospital
• Proposals to deal with “vacant and blighted” properties.
• The proposed Takoma Metro development project

2015 issues

• All of the above issues that made no apparent headway
• Takoma Junction
• Dog Park
• The budget
• The McLaughlin School lot

The Junction Rambunction

The short story: you know that parking lot between the co-op and the auto service shop? The city asked for development proposals for that lot. They got a bunch. They picked four finalists. The final choice will be this year – if it goes by plan. It’s been an open, long process. In other words there were many meetings featuring many citizen comments.

The TPSS Co-op, which wants to expand into that lot, was not happy. The co-op submitted a proposal, but it was rejected. They strongly asserted their needs, even to the point of getting their proposal back on the table. They have at least one councilmember in sympathy with that.

As we reported Nov. 24, the city made a surprising invitation to the Co-op to make a presentation at the Takoma Junction Open House Tuesday, Nov. 18.  “They were invited in order to help clarify their requirements for operation and expansion needs.” said Takoma Park city manager Brian Kenner.

The Co-op’s presentation was bold. It appeared to be an alternative proposal, though the Co-op is officially out-of-the-running as a competitor.

Most of the people turning out for the meetings were co-op members and staff. We suspect most Takoma Park residents remain unaware of any development plans. When the backhoes turn up, they will say “How come we were not informed?” and rage at the council for doing things in secret. This is a Takoma Park tradition.

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Co-op supporter and supplier Mike Tabor speaks at a September, 2014 city hearing on the Takoma Junction redevelopment proposals. Photo by Bill Brown.

The next sizable bunch were the Sycamore and Columbia Avenue neighbors. They fear negative impacts on nearby homes and traffic if the Takoma Junction development is too big.

As we reported Nov. 4, the council was listening to these folks, especially the Co-op supporters. So were the developers. They all get it. The Co-op wants space for a loading dock and it wants to keep operating through the construction. The developers said were talking to the Co-op. Everybody seemed to be on board.

But, not on board enough for some. They wanted to knock the process off the rails. The process was criticized and challenged at every public meeting.

In 2015 the city will pick it up where it left off. It may find itself jumping back to square one.

Crime Meeting

After a frightening car-jacking, muggings, and a lot of home robberies on Sycamore Avenue, the neighbors got together and organized a city meeting on crime Feb. 25 – as reported by Voice reporter Mike Persley. Apparently due to the efforts of Sycamore resident and robbery victim Peter Franchot, Maryland Comptroller, an extraordinary number of high-ranking officials turned out. The panel consisted of eight police chiefs from surrounding jurisdictions. A number of county politicians attended, including County Executive Ike Leggett.

Your Gilbert commented on the clout such a meeting required to set up, as well as underlying economic and racial dynamics. A group of local African American teens observed “it was a very white crowd, and how did they get all these important people to listen to them? The youth [said] they each had worse stories of crime victimization, yet they got no such attention.”

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County Executive Ike Leggett makes closing remarks at the Feb. 25 crime meeting.

The Sycamore residents group issued a report.

It called for some high-tech measures. “Technology Is the Future of Policing” reads one headline. It recommended: security cameras, using private security camera footage, and sharing of lcense plate scanner data with other jurisdictions, street closures, and more cross-jurisdictional cooperation among police departments.

The crime issue and the meeting galvanized Sycamore Avenue residents. One of them, Kate Stewart, declared her city council campaign a few weeks later. High on her list of issues was “improve community policing and coordination among the police departments.” She won the election.

Some of the citizen recommendations ended up on the council agenda. Despite pleas from civil libertarians, the council voted to share license plate scanner data with surrounding jurisdictions, including Homeland Security. The police are exploring a program that would encourage people and businesses with private security cameras to assist police.

Supposedly there is more cross-jurisdictional police cooperation.

Special Election

The Ward 3 special election April 8 was a squeaker. None of the three candidates had a majority vote, triggering the “instant runoff voting” system.

Candidate Kate Stewart was the first to jump into the race. She had a long list of stellar supporters, including then-state delegate Heather Mizeur and city councilmember Tim Male.

Jeffrey Noel-Nosbaum, a life-long resident and former candidate for the office got into the race next.

Roger Schlegel, former candidate for mayor with a strong resume of community and city activism and volunteerism, was the third to announce.

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Candidates Kate Steward, Jeffrey Noel-Nosbaum, and a Roger Schlegel campaign volunteer at the polls on election day. Photo by Bill Brown.

As is typical in Takoma Park elections, there was little difference in the candidate’s positions. But, in a series of candidate forums, Stewart and Schlegel emerged as the frontrunners.  Divisions also emerged, as Granolapark reported April 7.

Schlegel tapped into Ward 3’s south-end resentment, especially in the south of the south end, where he lives, and where his campaign signs proliferated.

The north end’s proximity to city hall makes a difference, he said. A critical mass of civically-involved people live there, giving them a stronger voice, and excellent city service. In contrast, Ward 3 southerners, he said, get “mysterious delays” on the things they are promised – a playground or new sidewalks, for example.

Stewart agreed that there is a north/south difference in sidewalks and upkeep of parks, though she said she’d not detected many other north/south differences in her door-to-door campaigning. Stewart lives on the south side, and her mother-in-law lives on the north side.

One of Stewart’s strong points was her gender. All the other ward representatives and the mayor are male. The late Kay Daniels-Cohen had been the only woman on the dais for over two years. An all-male council would be an embarrassment to the city’s progressive, diverse reputation.

Another distinction between the two candidates was that Stewart came across as a practical “doer” whereas Schlegel came across as an idealist “thinker.” For example, in answers to The Voice’s election guide questions, Schlegel’s answers were two to six times longer than Stewart’s.

In the first round of election day voting the count was Stewart: 323, Schlegel: 315, Noel-Nosbaum: 20.

Noel-Nosbaum, though adequately qualified, had the misfortune to go up against two very strong candidates, each with a large supporter-base.

None of the candidates had a majority, so Noel-Nosbaum’s votes were discarded, and those ballot’s second choices counted. The result was 332 votes for Stewart, 324 for Schlegel.

The approximately 660 votes cast is one of the highest Ward 3 vote counts in recent memory.

Kate Stewart was sworn in April 21.

She has indeed proved to be a practical “doer” with a professional demeanor.  She appears to have immersed herself deeply into ward and city issues, including those of Ward 3’s southern end. She has been frustrated in her attempts to get a “vacant and blighted” property ordinance on the agenda. Though briefly discussed in September, the issue has been pushed back.

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Councilmember Kate Stewart sworn in April, 2014. Photo by Bill Brown.

Spreading the data

In 2009 the cops got a license plate reader. It was a Homeland Security freebie. It was also bad timing. Because in 2009 it was revealed that the state police had been spying on peace, anti-death penalty, and environmental activists right here in Takoma Park from roughly 2004 to 2007. The spying included collecting activist’s license plate numbers.

The police pleaded for the reader, and the council agreed, but with restrictions. Collected data must be dumped every 30 days, and there was to be no sharing with other jurisdictions.

The restrictions were overturned July 21, 2014. By a 3-4 vote the council chose to share collected license data with other jurisdictions, including Homeland Security.

It was a turning point for progressive Takoma Park. The Sycamore Avenue citizen’s crime report recommended sharing data, acknowledging but pooh-poohing the civil rights aspect. A large number of residents, and a slim city council majority agreed. They preferred to exchange their (and your) civil rights for safety. They placed their faith in technology and the gentle hands of the people who brought us waterboarding.

These YETIES (Young Entitled Technophiles) belittled civil rights concerns. The police spying was ancient history – way back in 2004, and during a Republican governor’s administration. Hahahaha! THAT will never happen again in our solid blue state! You paranoid Takoma Park hippies have NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT.

Dog Park

In 2014 advocates succeeded in getting the council and city staff to commit to building a dog park.

As we reported May 9, “proponents seem to be following the example set by the Safe Grow Zone ordinance activists. They are showing up at meeting and demanding to know “Why aren’t you building the dog park?,” acting like it is a done deal.”

By the end of May, city staff released a “matrix” showing all the potential dog park sites, and the pros and cons of each – as we reported.

At an earlyJune work session, we reported  that at a work session they all said they lean toward building a dog park at the Heffer park site, at the end of Darwin Avenue behind the Takoma Middle School.

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The dog park plan.

“We need to get a dog park built,” said Mayor Bruce Williams. “There’s a lot of people who would like to see it done sooner than later.”

The council nodded in approval as city manager Brian Kenner said city staff is planning to have a functional dog-park in 2015.

The city spent its way through the $70,000 set aside in the budget for research and preliminary work on the dog-park.

The dog park activists did a lot of the work for the city. They cleared brush at Heffner Park. They even submitted architecture plans for the dog park. The city had a state Open Space grant coming to help pay for it. In the fall bad news broke.

In November we reported the county park and planning department took Takoma Park’s dog park money, said city manager Brian Kenner at the city council’s Nov. 24 meeting (the last meeting of the year).

The $53,500 was from Maryland’s Project Open Space. It was intended to subsidize Takoma Park’s dog park expenses.

That $52,500 the city was expecting to offset the $70,000 spent on the dog park, is gone – never to be replaced.

And the $33,000 in POS funds to offset next year’s proposed $100,000 dog park costs will not be coming either.

Don’t look for future state money to subsidize the dog park – or much of anything else (like the proposed Purple Line light-rail?). Maryland has a reported $1.2 billion state budget shortfall. And the incoming Republican governor says he’ll cut spending. And when he’s got spending down, he says, he’ll cut taxes.

In short – it looks like the dog park (and other expenses) are all on the city for at least the next four years. Which means it is all on city taxpayers. Those taxpayers already “enjoy” the highest city residential-tax rate in Montgomery County.

Running in place

Some red-hot issues simply remained red-hot all year, with few signs of change.

The planned departure of Washington Adventist Hospital is still hanging over the city. The hope that the city will retain some kind of emergency care facility is hanging there with it. This is due to bureaucracy. The state has yet to approve the hospital’s most recent application to move. The state legislature has yet to pass a law that would clarify what sort of stand-alone emergency-care facilities are allowed.

The issue’s only signs of life are occasional reports from WAH’s representatives, and sporadic angry comments from community activists are think the city is somehow at fault for everything that has or has not happened.

There hasn’t been much new with the Takoma Metro development project, either. The proposal to build a multi-story development on Eastern Ave. on what is now the Takoma Metro station’s parking lot enraged many residents in 2013. There were some hearings this year, and the Enraged Ones put protest signs in their yards. Other than that, there wasn’t much new.

Overload

Proposals to deal with “vacant and blighted” properties got shoved to the back burner.

Delay is probably due to staff overload. This issue was not on their list of council priorities.

It’s so easy for the council to say “We need the staff to prepare  ___.” But, staff time is a limited resource. So, the council agrees to curb their huge appetite by sticking to a priorities list diet.

But, council members have constituents, and two Ward 3 vacant-home fires this year heated up consituent demands to deal with empty – and rundown – homes. There was the perfume smell of gentrification and entitlement in the air. One young citizen complained to the council “We have dilapidated buildings, multiple families living in those buildings – we don’t know if they are legally there or not.” She was clearly put out that though she and her cohort of self-appointed inspectors had pointed out code-violations to the city, the city had not immediately snapped to attention. “And, we know when we address something, . . . we’d like to know there’s a response – and we have not been getting very timely responses.”

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The May 14 Westmoreland Avenue abandoned-house fire sparked citizen concern about other abandoned homes.

Some council members requested the staff to research a “Vacant and Blighted Properties Tax Rate,” and they got a council discussion about it on the July 21 agenda.

A sharp increase in property taxes, they thought, would be just the chomp in the butt to get landlords to fix up – or sell – their unsafe, unsightly properties. Or, if the landlords don’t pay, the city can put a lien on those properties, forcing a “tax-sale.”

Not all the council members liked this idea, btw.

When asked at the end of the discussion if he had the “direction you need,” city manager Brian Kenner said he sensed interest in needing more research. Councilmembers Seth Grimes and Tim Male pushed harder – they wanted to see proposals, ordinance language, and a timeline, they said.

The city manager’s response was even, but he did mention that this was a new council priority. Starting last November he held a series of meetings on council priorities.

Sometimes, Your Gilbert thinks the city council is much like a monkey house, and the staff are like the zookeepers – very solicitous zookeepers.

“Yes, sir! You want us to plant a million banana trees in the aisle? What an interesting idea! We’ll look into that right away and report back to you next week.”

Two thousand fifteen

Gaze with Your Gilbert into the future, Dear Readers.

Takoma Junction development will continue to be the biggest issue for at least a few months. There are more hearings ahead, and there could be some big shakeups as they overhaul or even chuck the process.

The dog park’s day of reckoning approaches. Will the city take on the whole cost now that Open Space grants have dried up? Very, very likely. The dog park activists are well entrenched and they have the council within range of the heavy artillery should it falter now. We bet they’ll even fix bayonets and charge if the council tries to cut back on the luxury park design they want.

Dog park proponents want one dog park now, and another two, eventually.

Dog park supporters in the city July 4th parade, 2013.

This could be a tough budget year. The state budget has a mere $1.2 billion budget shortfall, and Republican Larry Hogan mounting the governor’s saddle. A lot of city revenue comes from the state. There’s likely to be less in the pipeline this year. Worse, that pipeline passes through the county. There’s nothing stopping the county from diverting all but a few drops to itself.

The McLaughlin School (Christian Washington-McLaughlin School) is the city’s new year baby. It’s a former private school with a 2.68 acre lot behind it. It’s in Ward 3 near the corner of New Hampshire. and Poplar Avenues. Long a neglected property, the lot is up for auction by the IRS. The lot up for auction does not include the school building.

Christian Washington-McLaughlin School

Nearby residents are terrified of over-development – or any development that takes away the trees along the lot’s edges. They want to keep some or all of the green space.

Some are pushing the city to buy the lot. It may be a bargain at auction prices, but there are “encumbrances” – tax money owed that must be paid off by new owners. And there would be maintenance costs. Unfortunately the city has only a couple of weeks to figure out what to do.

It will continue to be an issue, however. If a developer gets it, there will be a fight to limit development. If the city gets it, it will be a burden that has to be paid for or sold off. And then a fight to limit development.

Unseen

There are other issues that haven’t’ come up much at city council but could become significant. New Hampshire Ave. development is one. Another is city library renovations. The Purple Line’s fate will have an impact on development around Piney Branch and Flower Avenues. And, of course, the Flower Avenue green street project is still active, though moving at the same slow pace as a city council meeeting.

Parking and traffic will come up again. City staff did a study, and the council had a discussion about Old Town parking once the Bus Boys & Poets restaurant/bar opens in Takoma DC (supposedly in February). They will consider higher parking fees and longer parking meter/zoning hours in and around Old Town.

Traffic is a huge and difficult to climb next step the council has to take before it chooses one of the  Takoma Junction development proposals. As it is now, there are daily traffic back-ups in the Junction. Redevelopment will bring more traffic and will create new traffic patterns. Traffic studies must be done.

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– Gilbert

 

 

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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.

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