How do you know you have a dysfunctional Planning Board? When two agenda items on the same day both end with citizens interrupting and shouting at the Board. And the Board Chair bickering back and forth with them in response. How do things unravel to that unruly point? Maybe because in both cases, the Board just completely ignored the residents' opinions, and approved two items for which there was either 99% resident opposition (Westbard), or 100% resident opposition (Woodfield Commons).
If anyone still harbored any doubt as to whether developers literally control Montgomery County, that wishful thinking was quickly dispelled Thursday.
We no longer need to hold Planning Board meetings, or have a public Sector Plan process. Kabuki theater good cop/bad cop shows aside, everything has gone exactly as the developers wanted in both cases. Any public input unacceptable to the developers was simply disregarded.
Westbard passed with the excessive height and density, no enforceable protection for gas stations or mom-and-pop businesses, not a single highway capacity improvement, and a last-minute affordable housing dump on the Little Falls Library site. How much of the County's right-of-way plans, land grabs next to the Capital Crescent Trail, and intriguingly-vague plans for certain parts of the River Road industrial area south of the road relate to secret plans to extend the Purple Line - and perhaps even dump a rail yard there - should tax the minds of the greatest conspiracy theorists in Montgomery County for the next decade.
There's no point getting excited, of course. There will be absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. Call your Councilman? He or she is likely funded by the developer, and his or her Chief of Staff may have even tweeted approval of the developer before the public has even had a chance to weigh in (yes, that actually happened). Plead with staff? If the staff responds to resident concerns, the Board simply puts the offending proposal back into the plan prior to the vote. Testify at the Board? Sure. Talk on. But ask the folks who took off from work, and drove literally the length of the County through the rain to testify yesterday, how successful you will be.
Without the fig leaf of the Purple Line (Chevy Chase Lake) or even a MARC line (Kensington), the Board made history in ramming through high-density at Westbard, which is far beyond the consensus walking distance from Metro smart growth experts would recommend.
In Damascus, the Board not only approved a 55' building in a rural area, but one that will offer 89% affordable units. No, that's not a typo. In 2015, the Board approved a Great Society-style housing project widely discredited in urban areas today. In a rural area, where those low-income residents will find little (weekdays) to no (the sole bus connection, Ride On Route 90, doesn't run on weekends) transit, few job opportunities, and no social services. Makes perfect sense, right? Meanwhile, in downtown Bethesda, luxury condos "from the several millions" are rising in corridor previously set aside for affordable housing.
After getting more than an earful from residents, 100% of which opposed Woodfield Commons, several commissioners pleaded impotence. We can't do anything to stop it, they said, because the proposal is consistent with the current Damascus master plan.
Except, it isn't. That plan designated two properties in the "town center" for a development such as Woodfield Commons. But Woodfield Commons is proposed for neither of those sites.
The plan said that views of the surrounding rural and agricultural area could not be obstructed. Resident measurements found that Woodfield Commons will indeed obstruct views.
Resident Ron Turner noted that the zoning of the site permits 78 units; 84 have been proposed.
And, as Commissioner Amy Presley noted despite ultimately voting to approve Woodfield Commons, developments of that type were specifically required by the plan to provide some benefit or enhancement to the existing residents of Damascus, and help make for a livelier downtown. Woodfield Commons is all-residential, and contains no public amenities and no retail.
But wait, there's more.
Anderson stated that the only purview the Board has, is to determine that an application is compliant with not only the master plan, but also consider whether it will too severely impact road and school capacity.
But the data used by staff is clearly false. In a town where it can take several light cycles to get through an intersection, and where traffic snakes all the way out of the "downtown" during rush hour, the Planning Department's traffic gurus say no intersections are failing. It's pick-your-head-off-the-floor-and-screw-it-back-on-disbelief time here, folks. A chart shows that, for over 168 residents, only 30 cars will drive out in the morning, and only 26 return in the evening (should we send out a search party for the missing 4?). With stats like these, who needs laughing gas?
They also say the applicant for Woodfield Commons will only need to provide a school payment at the middle school level, despite the town's crowded, aging schools.
And what about the environmental issues? No issues, staff and the Board said yesterday. But neither they, nor the applicant, were able to produce a letter from the Maryland Department of the Environment yesterday to prove the state had actually washed their hands of oversight of the wetlands on the property slated to become Woodfield Commons. Did Anderson tenaciously pursue that lapse of documentation, and potential violation of the rules? Nope.
|Steep descent from Route 27|
into the shopping center;
stream valley lies in the distance
You tell me. You tell me.
Or let the residents of Damascus tell you.
Jason Goldsmith testified that Maryland law says when you have a steep slope next to a wetland, there are certain things that cannot be done.
The broad consensus? This is simply more low-income housing than the town can bear. Damascus Gardens, one of two low-income housing sites in the Damascus area, generated more than 200 calls for police this year alone, said resident George Boyce. That "troubled community" has experienced shootings, homicides, sexual assaults, open-air drug markets and even prostitution investigations - all within 500 yards of Damascus High School (even worse, Damascus Elementary is diagonally across the street from the high school).
Jim Brown, a 20-year Damascus resident, said Damascus Gardens alone requires off-duty officers to patrol it 26 hours a week. Even after 200 police officers raided the Damascus Gardens complex (can you imagine this in "wealthy" Montgomery County?), and 18 suspects were charged with felony distribution, the level of police calls remains just as high.
I can tell you that, directly across the street from Damascus Gardens, the single-family home neighborhood has erected forboding Neighborhood Watch signage that says the tag numbers of all vehicles entering the neighborhood are being reported to the police. That level of crime and aggressive signage to combat it have to take a toll on property values.
A Metropolitan Police Department officer who lives in Damascus said she grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, and saw the worst at an early age: murders, shootings and drugs in her own housing complex. "There is a relationship between low-income housing and crime. I've lived it," she said. She noted that she had chosen to live in Damascus, and drives two-and-half hours each day, to escape those kind of neighborhoods.
"You cannot deny that these types of developments often bring crime," argued Jim Mullally, who lives only a block from Damascus Gardens. Calling such public housing "an antiquated policy tool," he recommended commissioners take the Woodfield Commons proposal and "put it into a housing policy museum where it belongs."
Testimony became emotional at times. A Damascus High School student who had to miss class, and get a ride from a teacher, just to get to the afternoon public hearing, broke down in tears at the end of his testimony. "We are nothing more than a rock on the railroad tracks of your [proposal], just waiting to be shoved aside," he said. Planning Director Gwen Wright brought tissues over to the distraught young man as the Board moved on to the next speaker. "Damascus is our home, our community, our everything," said resident Gretchen Goldsmith, who described the connection of upcounty growth with the increase in crime, bullying and school safety issues since 2007. Already, school personnel are "gravely overtaxed" meeting the growing challenges, she said. Resident Patty Walker delivered a Powerpoint presentation highlighting the small town charm of Damascus, and how best to preserve it. Her daughter Kelly noted that numerous blended classes on her middle school schedule were reducing the rigor and quality of her education. Longtime resident Pat Fenati recalled her children's "idyllic childhood" growing up when many of the roads were still dirt. "People who move to the country don't want the city to follow them there," she said.
While the testimony was never angry in nature, residents were angered by the end of the meeting when the Board made clear that, despite 100% of testimony having opposed the project, it was going to go ahead and approve it.
If the Board didn't approve Woodfield Commons, "We will get sued, and we'll lose," Anderson predicted.
Jessica Zuniga, representing developer Conifer, which has partnered with the Housing Opportunities Commission for Woodfield Commons, defended her company's record. "We are an award-winning owner and manager of affordable housing," she said. "I do not believe that we are concentrating poverty with this project."
Anderson moved ahead to the vote. The crowd grew upset. "I'm sorry if that's not satisfactory to you," Anderson said.
"Vistas and the views must be maintained," quoted one resident from the master plan. "There is a specific...you're ignoring the master plan," that audience member said as Anderson tried to speak louder over it. "We took testimony for two hours," he replied. "You didn't listen!" someone shouted. "Don't say you're conforming to the master plan, so just admit it please!"
Commissioner Natali Fani-Gonzalez made a motion to approve the project; it and the site plan were approved unanimously.
Residents stormed out, stunned. "You just lost a lot of citizens from your county, damn it! I'm moving," one shouted at the Board. Some were in tears.
Surely an overwhelming turnout, with logical, fact-based opposing arguments, and not a single person testifying in favor of the plan, would have an impact and move the Board to postpone or address the concerns, right?
Anderson seemed to contradict his past arguments in two ways. First, in defending the Board from criticism by "Westbard" residents, Anderson had previously argued that he and the Board were indispensible, and able to make land-use decisions that residents are simply incapable of comprehending the longer-term value of. Now, in claiming impotence, Anderson presents us with a passive body that can only rubber stamp applications (notice every single one was approved yesterday).
Second, Anderson often chastizes people for getting too detailed at the sector plan stage. "This is more of a site plan issue," is the often-heard phrase. Yesterday shot that argument full of holes.
If indeed that idea is true, then it means the people literally have no recourse. We can't request a protection be put in at the Sector Plan writing stage. But if we let it go then, it turns out that when we go to the vaunted site plan stage, we can't ask about it, either. And the Board is supposedly powerless to stop anything at that juncture, Anderson made clear yesterday.
So where exactly does public input have any relevance? Why did residents in Bethesda and Damascus spend hours researching, attending meetings and testifying, only to find what they opposed sailing through to approval.