Labor Day marks a new phase in the year for most of us-- an end to August vacations, back to school, and back to work. It is certainly all of that for me.
Our annual August break on the Council could not have come soon enough for this Councilmember. The four months since my last newsletter was a whirlwind of activity, including working our way through a budget that allowed us to reduce property taxes, fund our school system to its satisfaction, and enhance services. Given the structural deficit at the state level, which could result in less state revenues returning to the County, this combination of lower taxes and increased services may not repeat itself soon. So I hope that we all enjoy the good times!
In the pages (and pages) that follow, I share with you my thoughts on a range of issues – big and small – that touch the lives of our community and some of the work I have been doing on your behalf. For those of you who would like to share your thoughts on the state of Montgomery County with me in person, I will be hosting three public forums in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Potomac this fall. I will be sending out a separate announcement to you with the final dates, places, and times as well as posting them on my website. I hope you will be able to join me and my staff for a conversation about the needs of District 1 and our larger community.
Growth Policy: Quality of Life
As many of you know, in response to the Council’s directive, the Planning Board submitted to the Council a new Growth Policy proposing substantial increases in impact taxes and the recordation tax, a new transportation test to measure the level of congestion on County roadways, a new test to measure school capacity, and a call for increased emphasis on sustainability and design excellence.
After reviewing the proposal, I concluded that the document lacked a critical component: How growth impacts the quality of life of our community. As a result, I asked Council President Praisner to join me in requesting that the Planning Board identify, as other communities have done, quality of life “indicators” in order to allow all of us to gain a better appreciation of the impact of growth on the qualities that make our community so special. I am pleased to report that Dr. Royce Hanson, the Chair of the Planning Board, has responded very positively to this request, and I am confident that “quality of life” will have a significant place in our growth policy discussions in the future.
In the meantime, we must come to terms with striking the right balance on both taxes and a new transportation test before the end of the year. To assist us in finding that balance, I formally asked the County Executive to provide us his views on the Planning Board’s recommendations. In response, the County Executive concluded that the taxes being proposed are too high and that the transportation test is insufficient. The Council as a whole has asked the Planning Board to come back to us this fall with different options, particularly as they relate to the transportation test. I will post the revised proposals on our website as soon as they are available and will be most grateful for your feedback and suggestions.
My own view is that the old contentious debate between growth and no-growth advocates must give way to the global warming paradigm. This is a paradigm which would result in a greater emphasis on mass transportation and the creation of more pedestrian friendly, mixed-use environments that also preserve green spaces. I increasingly see the growth policy that we will act on this fall as a “transition” document that will begin the movement to a more sustainable future that honors the quality of life that makes Montgomery County a very special place to live.
Protecting Pedestrian Rights and the Character of our Communities
This summer we approved an overhaul of the County’s Road Code, an overhaul that should lead to safer streets. During the debate on the measure, I offered two major amendments that became part of the final product – one designed to protect pedestrians in downtown Bethesda and other urban areas during construction, and the other to make sure that when streets are redone, communities are respected in the process.
As anyone who has tried to navigate Arlington Road in Bethesda knows, when there is major construction, our roads and sidewalks often become casualties of the work. I don’t think that is right. It is not what happens in other urban areas, and it shouldn’t happen here. Under my amendment to the Road Code, permits will not be issued for closure of a public right-of- way for more than 15 days, unless a safe alternate walkway is provided on the same side of the street.
I also succeeded in amending the Road Code so that when neighborhood roads are redeveloped and resurfaced, the Department of Public Works and Transportation must “respect and maintain the particular character of the community” by adopting “context sensitive designs.” This amendment was offered in direct response to District 1 residents who wish to preserve and protect the character of their neighborhoods. For more information on both amendments, click here (Bill 48-06, Section 49-10 and Section 49-25).
Infill Development: Striking a Better Balance
In response to the rapid pace of development in Bethesda, Potomac, and Chevy Chase, I have convened the Infill Development Task Force that will produce recommendations for action by the County Council.
The task force is working hard on issues that are both complex and controversial -- issues that touch upon core values -- including the rights of individuals to maximize the economic worth of their property and the rights of communities seeking a more “graceful transformation” of their neighborhoods. We are looking at issues ranging from “lot coverage ratios” to privacy, from impervious surfaces to garages.
The task force is made up of Montgomery County homeowners in neighborhoods affected by residential teardowns and infill development, representatives of the building industry, staff from Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), the Department of Permitting Services (DPS), and my office. Task Force meetings are facilitated by the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County.
We have held six meetings and have heard presentations by MNCPPC staff on tools used by other jurisdictions to address issues related to infill development and received briefings by, among others, Garrett Park Mayor Carolyn Shawaker on the Garrett Park overlay zone, and Susan Scala-Demby of the Department of Permitting Services on current County zoning regulations.
District 1 residents are welcome to observe the task force in action. At our last meeting, there were probably 50 citizens in that capacity. Click here for meeting times and locations and the minutes of previous task force meetings.
Bethesda Naval Medical Center: Mitigating Traffic Impacts
I remain very concerned about the serious threat to the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods posed by the projected growth of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, and I continue to represent the Council on the BRAC Implementation Committee, the community task force that meets regularly with the Navy.
The Navy’s forthcoming Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) will be the single most important document in this process and will represent our best opportunity to minimize the negative impact on our community of the increased traffic that will result. For that reason, I proposed that residents be given twice the original public comment period of 45 days to respond to the EIS. The Task Force embraced my position, and, at the Task Force’s urging, the Council Executive and Council President have sent a joint letter calling for the extension.
Unfortunately, I was recently advised that this request has been rejected, at least until after the DEIS is published (expected sometime in October), at which point, the County can renew its request. Know that I will be reviewing the document carefully upon its release, and working with our community and other County leaders to ensure a vigorous and thorough response that underscores the federal responsibility to adopt far reaching transportation measures that will offset any negative impact on our community as a result of this otherwise needed improvement in the quality of care we provide our veterans.
Protecting the C&O Canal
The C&O Canal National Historical Park forms most of the Western boundary of Montgomery County. The Park is an historic landmark and a scenic treasure, used daily by thousands who walk, bike, and kayak along its borders. Many people have dedicated themselves to protecting part of our nation’s history by creating the C&O Canal Park and it is important that we do everything possible to make sure their efforts are strengthened and supported so future generations will be able to enjoy the park.
To protect the scenic view shed of the park of the park, I co-sponsored Zoning Text Amendment 07-04, which limits accessory structures within 200 feet of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The bill was necessary in part because the National Park Service failed to stop a proposal which could have resulted in a tall, black iron gate being constructed along the Canal’s border. The measure passed the Council on an 8-1 vote, an action that will help preserve the character of the park for all of us and future generations.
Water Main Breaks: Enough!
I am sure you are well aware of the recent “surge” of water main breaks in the County, particularly in the Bethesda, Chevy Chase areas. This issue is of great concern to me, as I know it is to you. My office stays in close contact with WSSC representatives and closely monitors all disruptions in service and the ensuing repairs.
I have recently spoken with Mr. Andrew Brunhart, General Manager at WSSC, and conveyed my concerns on the behalf of District 1 residents. Specifically, I urged him to accelerate WSSC’s current plans for pipe replacement and to prioritize the Commission’s efforts in those areas that have experienced the greatest number of ruptures as well as where the pipe is the oldest. I also informed him that my office has received several complaints about the quality of repairs done by WSSC in the aftermath of a break and asked him to look into this issue.
In the event of a water main break in your area, you can reach WSSC customer service at 301-206-4011 or 1-800-634-8400. In the event of an emergency, call the 24 hour emergency line at 301-206-4002. Click here to read my letter to Mr. Brunhart.
Global Warming and the Role of Local Government
As I have shared with you before, I am convinced that global warming must be addressed through a coordinated effort at every level of government. Accordingly, I was pleased when I was named to the Council of Governments’ (COG) newly-formed Climate Change Steering Committee, a 15-member group that will develop regional initiatives to help reduce greenhouse gases and combat global warming.
At the same time, I am following through on my commitment to place Montgomery County at the forefront of the fight against global warming. Council staff is currently working to draft the precise legislative language for the Council’s consideration later this year. My global warming initiative will basically follow the structure and substance of the 15 different legislative initiatives that seven of my fellow councilmembers have already agreed to in principle. If enacted, Montgomery County’s global warming law will be among the most comprehensive responses to this critical threat adopted by any local government in the country (see the full package by clicking here).
As a part of my effort to discover the best practices, I asked anyone with a good “green idea” to send it to me. In response, I received many terrific green ideas from County residents that will inform our legislation as well as the development of the County’s Climate Action Plans (see list of green ideas we received by clicking here). Thank you.
In order to help each of us know more about the individual actions we can take, I have created a list of energy saving tips that can cut your energy costs and our County’s green house gas emissions at the same time. Please click here to print out your copy of “Berliner’s Top Sixteen for Fighting Global Warming at Home,” and follow these low cost tips to reduce the carbon footprint of your home.
Libraries and Cultural Affairs
As the lead Councilmember on all issues pertaining to Libraries and Cultural Affairs, I am very pleased to report on that the Fiscal Year 2008 budget recently adopted by the Council is very good for both libraries and cultural affairs.
The library budget has been increased more than $2 million for this year, including funds to increase Sunday hours at Bethesda Library and funds to purchase a variety of new materials for general users, new Americans, seniors, teens and students.
This year also marks a major turning point in the County’s support for arts and humanities. In the past, the County Executive recommended specific amounts for specific arts and humanities organizations, and those recommendations were then considered for approval by the County Council. Organizations thought they had to devote limited resources to lobbying both the County Executive and the Council. Under the new budget, major arts institutions—from Strathmore to Glen Echo Park—reached consensus among themselves on how the County’s financial support for the arts community should be allocated. I applaud them for this achievement.
In other budget news, I am especially pleased to report that I succeeded in including in this budget a 50% increase from the County Executive’s request for Imagination Stage. Imagination Stage’s exciting performances and arts education programs have helped generate significant economic and cultural development in the County and especially in downtown Bethesda. Imagination Stage’s nationally-acclaimed Inclusion Program (for people with physical or cognitive disabilities) is one of the finest examples of innovation, commitment and quality. We are very lucky to have them in our County (and our District).
Schools and Education
AP Textooks: It was recently brought to my attention that Churchill High School was not providing AP students textbooks that could be taken home on a daily basis; thus inappropriately encouraging AP students to purchase their books. I immediately contacted Superintendent Weast and MCPS, registering my strong concern regarding this approach. MCPS agreed that this approach was contrary to their policy as well, and the practice is now being corrected.
Pedestrian Safety: In response to constituent concerns about pedestrian safety in school zones, I hosted a meeting with representatives from District 1 PTA’s, Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPWT), and the school system. Every school in District 1 was invited to send representatives to the meeting, which took place on July 30th at the Council Office Building. As our school populations increase and our neighborhoods age, we need to be looking at the infrastructure surrounding our schools. Our children and our families deserve safe, walkable routes to school. Measures such as crossing guards, stop signs, or traffic lights at busy intersections should be implemented if they will improve the safety of our children.
Capital Projects: I am pleased to tell you that here are a number of schools in District 1 that have received or will soon receive substantial capital improvements. By August of 2009, eight schools in our district will have received additions, thus eliminating the need for 35 portable classrooms. The list of schools receiving additions includes Farmland ES, Garrett Park ES, Ashburton ES, Bethesda Chevy Chase HS, Luxmanor ES, Pyle MS, Wayside ES, and Westland MS. Also by 2009, Walter Johnson HS, Bells Mill ES, and Carderock ES will have been modernized, further reducing the number of portable classrooms by 10. Soon to follow will be the modernizations of Cabin John MS, Farmland ES, Seven Locks ES, and Garrett Park ES. I am also pleased to inform you that seven schools will be receiving gyms and five schools will receive restroom renovations in the next four years. By 2012, every school in District 1 will have a gymnasium which is essential for a strong and vibrant physical education program.
I know that many communities have been waiting patiently for these projects to become a reality. My staff and I will be closely monitoring the six-year Capital Improvements Program (CIP) and will work diligently to ensure that these projects stay on track.
Counselors: The Council approved funding for additional counselors during the FY ’08 budget deliberations. The addition of 21 counselor positions will reduce the student to counselor ratio to 210:1 at the middle school level and 248:1 at the high school level. This is an improvement, but I feel that the County ought to do better. Therefore, it is my sincere hope that the FY ’09 budget will include a significant increase in counselors, and I will do my best to advocate for the necessary resources.
On July 19, the Council voted unanimously to reject the petition to incorporate the Rollingwood area of Chevy Chase. After much deliberation, I concluded that the incorporation of Rollingwood was not in the best interests of the County as a whole. Please take a minute to read my statement, which explains my reasoning, by clicking here. There will be a second public hearing on Rollingwood the evening of Thursday, September 20, when the petition will come again to the full Council for reconsideration.
Fox Hills West Sidewalk
I decided to formally weigh in, over the objections of many of the affected landowners, in favor of the residents of Fox Hills West who are seeking a sidewalk to connect a park and their elementary school. (Click here to read my letter to Mr. Scott Reilly, Office of the County Executive, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, in support of the sidewalk construction.) I understand that certain landowners may now have to tolerate a sidewalk immediately adjacent to their property, when they have enjoyed their homes the way they are for many, many years. However, I concluded that the larger public interest would be best served by a sidewalk so that kids don’t have to walk in the street to school, parents can use a stroller to take their children to the park, and handicapped individuals are not forced to traverse either a busy street or uneven grounds. That doesn’t mean that sidewalks, which often provoke incredible passion on both sides of the issue, are right in every single neighborhood. However, in this instance, the neighborhood had actually been planned for a sidewalk, and I felt that the community had demonstrated the benefits outweighed the costs.
In keeping with my promise to be available and responsive to the problems and concerns of District 1 residents, my office has handled a wide range of constituent issues since our last newsletter. Along with facilitating improved communication with the various executive agencies, M-NCPPPC, MCPS and the local utility companies, we have solved many concrete problems shared with us by constituents. Among others, we have had potholes fixed, storm drains cleaned out, dead trees cut down, intersections redesigned and street lights repaired.
To illustrate with one specific example, a condominium community along Montrose Parkway contacted us about a steep hill that had been created on the edge of their property line as a result of the parkway construction. We arranged a meeting on site with the community members and the Department of Public Works advocating for a fence on behalf of the community. DPWT agreed that a fence was necessary to protect the children in the development, and it is currently being built. Please let me know if you have any concerns or problems with which that my staff can help you. You are our eyes and ears throughout the County, and we need your help to know what needs to be improved, changed or otherwise fixed.
We were very pleased to have Aaron Kaufman as a Summer Intern in the Berliner office in June and July. Aaron lives in Chevy Chase and is a rising sophomore in the Montgomery College Scholars Program. He is also a fighter for the disabled, and in the short five weeks he was with us, he expanded our consciousness, and the consciousness of the Council, as to the day to day needs of the disabled. However, he did more than expand our awareness -- Aaron handled constituent calls, monitored legislation, and provided research support. We enjoyed his effervescent personality, and we are very grateful for his help.
Intern Aaron Kaufman with Berliner staffers. From left to right: Thanh Tran, Cindy Gibson, Aaron Kaufman, Reggie Oldak, Karen Williams, and Councilmember Berliner. Rebecca Lord is not pictured.
As always, my staff and I look forward to hearing from you and to seeing you at community events. Reggie Oldak is my Chief of Staff; Rebecca Lord, our Policy Analyst focusing on Land Use; Karen Williams, our Policy Analyst focusing on Transportation and the Environment; Cindy Gibson, our Policy Analyst focusing on Education and Public Safety; and Thanh Tran, who handles much of our constituent work, and also will be happy to schedule your meeting with me or my staff. All of them will try to facilitate your interaction with County government in any way that they can.
Thank you for your trust, and please let me know what I can do for you.
Councilmember, District 1
Lead Member for Libraries and Cultural Affairs