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Thoughts on the Westbard Sector Plan

Following are my prepared remarks on the Westbard Sector Plan. You may also watch a video of my remarks as delivered.


I want to start by thanking all the people who put a great deal of time into formulating this plan. Hundreds of Westbard residents – and residents across Montgomery County – who wrote, called, and came to testify to the Planning Board and the Council throughout this process, and while no one person is getting exactly the outcome they might want, I truly believe that the plan before us today is much better because of the extensive public input we’ve received – and the many changes we have made in response. Ultimately, I believe that this plan strikes the right balance between respecting the legitimate expectations of the existing community and providing a sustainable path for future growth.

I think some context might be helpful for anyone who cares to understand my vote today, so I hope my colleagues will excuse me if this is a little long:

I ran for Montgomery County Council as a progressive Democrat because I am deeply committed to the progressive values of social justice, equal opportunity, and shared responsibility. Here at the local level, these values play out very differently than they do on cable news – the county council doesn’t get much say over immigration, or gun control, or foreign policy.

Instead, we reflect our progressive values through our budget – where we ensure a robust safety net, universal health coverage, a strong education for all students. We try to build an economy that works for everyone by combining relentless economic and workforce development with efforts to level the playing field with a reasonable minimum wage, paid sick leave, hopefully one day paid family and parental leave. We do our part in the fight against discrimination and for equal rights.

But for me, the key to our community’s success is that we are welcoming and open. The message I want Montgomery County to send to the rest of the world is: Whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever your economic status, if you are willing to work hard and be good to your neighbors, come to Montgomery County and share in the good life. You’ll have access to basic services, to training and education and jobs, your kids can go to a good school and play at great parks, and you will be safe. If you want to start a company you can find investors and a world class network of incubators, if you need employees we have the best educated workforce in the world.

I know that sounds grandiose, but at its core, the progressive values that drive the Democratic positions on economic issues, on social issues, are really about inclusion – about realizing a vision of shared prosperity – that’s it’s not enough for just the elite to prosper. And nothing is more fundamental to this vision than housing. Where you live determines the quality of your schools, what jobs you have access to, and so many other things. So I really believe that the community planning process we are engaged in today is really where the rubber meets the road for putting progressive values into action. That means providing income-restricted housing in every neighborhood to ensure that the very poorest and most vulnerable in our community have a place to live and aren’t clustered in high crime areas with little opportunity. We are breaking new ground by requiring at least 15% of new units to be affordable to low-income families. But it also means building enough housing to ensure that people of all income levels have a place here. If we don’t build enough housing to meet demand, prices rise and working class people are priced out.

And we have a moral imperative to plan this housing in an environmentally sustainable way. We know with scientific certainty what the combustion engine is doing to our planet. This means clustering new housing in existing communities rather than allowing green space to be developed and providing ways for people to get around on foot, by bike, and by public transit. While this plan is not on a metro station, and some of these new residents will certainly drive, the plan does make great strides in improving the walkability of the area and I am hopeful that expanded demand will allow us to improve bus service even further. But there can be no doubt that building townhouses on what is already a giant parking lot, just a mile from two metros, right across from the DC line, is far better for the environment than developing a farm or bulldozing a forest an hour north on 270.

Of course, our first principle must be do no harm. I don’t want to change any of the things that make Westbard wonderful. First, not a single existing home is being touched. We reduced the allowed development proposed by the Planning Board by half because we were convinced that it would have been too much, too fast for the roads, schools, and neighborhoods to handle. The plan before us today will only improve life for everyone in the Westbard sector. Traffic will be still be bad, but not noticeably worse. There will be new shopping and dining options and a great new park. The schools will still be great and Kenwood’s cherry blossoms will still bloom.

This also means making sure that the developers, who there is no doubt will make a profit from this project, pay their fair share to ensure there is adequate school and transportation capacity for all residents. This year we will be revising the Subdivision Staging Policy, which governs what developers must do and what they must pay to build in Montgomery County, and I know all my colleagues will be working to make sure that the rules line up with reality and we have the resources we need.

All in all, I truly believe this plan strikes the right balance between protecting and enhancing the things that make Westbard, and Montgomery County, such a wonderful place to live, while creating new opportunities for families from all socioeconomic backgrounds to enjoy our community’s marvelous resources.

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What should we do about Big Boxes?

The County Council is debating a proposal to address the impacts from large commercial retail operations or “big boxes”. The discussion has been prompted by Council President Valerie Ervin’s bill that would require new retailers with more than 75,000 square feet of space to negotiate with community groups prior to opening. I have heard from a lot of constituents about this issue. I’d like to share my thoughts with you and hear what you think.

Big box retailers are very profitable. In 2010, Wal-Mart earned $17 billion in after-tax net income. That same year, Home Depot earned $3.3 billion, Target earned $2.9 billion and Best Buy earned $1.4 billion in after-tax net income.

At the same time, a significant number of studies have found that big boxes have had detrimental effects on wages, employment, small businesses, public health care costs and traffic. I believe that some big box retailing necessitates additional community protections. That is why I agreed to co-sponsor the Council President’s bill.

The bill requires incoming big box retailers to negotiate “community benefit agreements” with at least three community groups. The bill would seem to create the likelihood that certain community groups would get “benefits” as a result of a big box coming in. For example, a new swimming pool or support for a library in one community, or, elsewhere, local hiring preferences. It is unclear whether the bill would actually result in any benefits for the communities, however, as the only requirement is negotiation, not agreement.

Community benefits agreements are not the only proposal for addressing big box impacts. The question is, what problems are we trying to solve?

Two problems I am very concerned about are the wages and benefits issues facing workers; and the big box impacts that affect our ability to create great places to live.

On the first topic, the federal National Labor Relations Act prevents local governments from directly regulating wages and benefits in purely private-sector circumstances. But when county funding is involved, the county has a right to attach conditions to that funding. The county already requires construction contractors on county projects to pay prevailing wages. It also requires county-employed service contractors to pay living wages to their employees. Perhaps recipients of county economic development grants, loans and incentives should be required to pay living wages and health benefits. That would make sure that county money does not subsidize low-wage job creation, which will not sustain our quality of life.

On the second issue, I am concerned that big boxes in our commercial+retail+residential areas will undermine the core vision of a community designed according to principles of housing opportunity, walkability and public transportation.

The county has abundant powers to regulate land use through its zoning authority. In 2004, the county passed a zoning text amendment requiring combination retail + grocery stores with more than 120,000 square feet to obtain a special exception to operate. The Board of Appeals is empowered to make requirements on noise, lighting, traffic remediation, buffers, parking, signs and other issues. The county’s Planning Board can also address similar issues in its planning and approval process, and is well suited to address the challenges that big boxes pose for community building.

I believe we need to reexamine these regulations for big box stores. The fact that the proposed Aspen Hill Wal-Mart is planned to be 118,000 square feet – a bare 2,000 square feet below the county’s current threshold for a special exception – argues that some sort of reevaluation of our requirements may be in order.

Another Wal-Mart on Rockville Pike would be situated one-third of a mile from the Twinbrook Metro. This location is prime real estate for our continuing efforts on the Pike to build a first class community where you would want to live, shop and work. I share the view, articulated by my council colleague Roger Berliner, that we must develop the Pike consistent with the principles of walkability, with a public-transportation centered strategy. The Wal-Mart as proposed would not accomplish that.

We have to strike a balance between providing the consumer choices our residents deserve and mitigating the impact of huge commercial establishments on our environment, mobility and labor markets. I’d like to get to that balance and I think we can get it done.

But I’d like to hear what you think. How would you do it? What ideas would you put on the table? Please let me know by commenting here or emailing me. Thanks!

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Daily journal, 10-17-11

Today’s Transportation Committee hearing focused on several issues
that I want to see us move quickly to address. First was pedestrian
safety. As a county we must move to promote walkability so that there
are meaningful alternatives to driving everywhere and clogging the
roads. The County Executive has implemented an effective pedestrian
safety initiative that appears to have had a strong positive effect by
reducing pedestrian crashes.

A big portion of that discussion focused on walkability and school
safety. I was interested to learn that the county reviews data and
makes improvements for a quarter mile “walk shed” for our schools, but
the actual walk shed for that school could be a half mile, three
quarters of a mile, and so on. I plan to discuss this issue more with
our transportation officials and see if there are any changes that we
need to make.

Finally, an invigorating discussion on bikesharing. The county has
pursued federal grants for several years to build a bikesharing
system, as DC and NoVa have done with great success. The revelation
in the meeting for me was viewing the bikesharing operation as an
additional transit system that we can put in place. Already since its
founding just over a year ago, the capital bikesharing program has
generated more than one million trips.

Committee Chair Berliner pushed very hard, noting that our relative
lack of a bikeshare transit system is embarrassing to the county and
needs to be resolved. I asked the County DOT for us to be the first
jurisdiction in the state to apply for a new bikesharing program that
the state government is going to fund on an 80-20 split. As our DOT
pointed out, we will need to figure out where the resources come from
on our end, as these are very tight budget times.

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Walk To School Day

This is the spectacular view from my seat at the county’s Walk To
School Day, where I joined superintendent Starr, County Executive
Leggett, and Councilmember Craig Rice. Craig fired up the crowd of
students at James Daly Elementary and I tell you, the sound of
hundreds of kids screaming is something to behold (in a very good
way).

Asked to speak I told the students how when I was a kid I walked 1.2
miles each way almost every day (I biked some too). It was always an
adventure. Eating plums, splashing puddles, making friends,
bickering with them, and trying desperately to get home before I peed
my pants. I think that formative experience of walking hours each day
helps explain why I’ve always preferred to walk to my job (can’t any
more tho) and why to this day I put such an emphasis on walkability in
our community planning.

Good times.