Council oversight on public safety

Dear resident:

Picture for a moment the radios that first responders carry. These radios function by relaying signals through a network of dedicated towers placed around the County.

Firefighters, rescue and police officers need a new radio network. The current one is failing. Failing means that there are moments when the radio network becomes unreliable.

Radios and towers work as a system

Consider that firefighters in a burning structure or police officers calling for backup could get a busy signal instead of getting through. It has been happening. For hours one weekend this May, 75% of the channels went down.

A new system is nearly ready. County departments have been working to build the new 22 tower system for years. The “go live” plan for the new network is Fall of 2020.

Recently, however, there has been confusion as the County Executive moved to cancel two critical tower locations for the network, putting completion of the project into jeopardy.

Some residents nearby did not want a radio tower where it had been planned, inside of the cloverleaf intersection of Georgia Avenue and the ICC. They spoke out. A handful of residents also protested a proposed tower near the Potomac River.

Map of the 22 public safety radio towers

In response, the County Executive directed his staff to find alternatives.

Councilmembers became alarmed as we heard from firefighters and other emergency management personnel that without those two final towers, the network would not work as planned, particularly in Olney, Leisure World and the Potomac River basin.

“This issue is now a public safety emergency that requires immediate and swift action to avoid further increased risks to the safety of the citizens, and those public safety officers who risk their lives to serve them every day.” Montgomery County Firefighters Association

While searching for alternatives may sound reasonable, as it turns out, you can’t remove 1 of the 22 towers without:

  1. Deploying a network with coverage weak spots where towers are missing
  2. Reconfiguring the entire network, which is designed as an interdependent whole, possibly requiring a delay from the Fall 2020 go-live, meaning the County continues relying on the failing system for longer
  3. Searching for alternative locations, which has no clear timeline for success
  4. Building alternative towers that could cost taxpayers millions more than planned

None of these consequences are acceptable. That is why the Council voted unanimously to approve a capital budget amendment requiring the executive branch to move forward with the network as planned. Watch a video of my remarks on the budget amendment.

While the Council very much regrets the dis-satisfaction these two towers have caused for some, there are tens of thousands of residents in the Olney area and a million of us around the County who are counting on our first responders to be able to do their job, every minute of every day.

If an alternative location were available that would not delay the full network, cause the area to have lesser coverage in the interim, and cost the County millions of dollars, we could do that. But there isn’t.

In response to Council questions about the final remaining tower, Bretton Woods, the County Executive’s representative said, “we have run out of time because the process to research, finalize location, permit, build and test this alternative site is predicted to take more than 18 months. The Executive directed staff to condense the process as much as possible, but at this late date, the alternative site cannot be guaranteed to be ready for the December 2020 deadline.”

And that is why we need to move forward without delay on this critical public safety initiative. With our unanimous vote, the Council is insisting on it.

Sincerely,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Council Approves Zoning Change for Accessory Dwelling Units

Dear residents,

I am pleased to share that the Council voted unanimously, 9-0, to support the zoning proposal I introduced to allow more homeowners to build Accessory Dwelling Units.

An Accessory Dwelling Unit is a basement apartment or garage conversion or similar small housing unit that is added to a property.

I introduced this change so that the County could provide an opportunity that many families are seeking, to be able to provide a living arrangement that offers separation but proximity, independence but togetherness. We heard from retirees that they might use an ADU to age in place, and Millennials that they could use an ADU to better afford a mortgage.

We carefully reviewed concerns that were raised about impacts on schools, parking and the environment, and we made changes that achieve a balanced solution that will get a very tailored, practical result.

Details are below. Thank you to each of you who spoke out, whatever your views.

Sincerely,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large


Council Approves Zoning Change
for Accessory Dwelling Units

Legislation sponsored by Councilmember Hans Riemer
would remove obstacles to lower-cost housing

ROCKVILLE, Md., July 23, 2019 – The Montgomery County Council unanimously adopted Zoning Text Amendment 19-01 today, removing significant barriers for homeowners who wish to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) on their properties. ZTA 19-01 was sponsored by at-large Councilmember Hans Riemer, who chairs the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee.

“The high cost of housing in Montgomery County is pricing people out,” said Councilmember Hans Riemer. “This important change allows homeowners to build housing that works for their families, and to create better options for renters in communities across Montgomery County. I am grateful for the careful deliberation of my colleagues and their unanimous support, as well as the strong advocacy of the smart growth community – working together we got it done.”

An ADU is a second, separate living unit on a lot zoned for single unit development. ADUs can be built by converting a basement into an apartment, adding an addition to an existing house, building an apartment over a garage, converting an existing shed or detached garage, or building a new backyard cottage. An ADU is distinguished from renting out part of a house because it is a totally separate living unit, with a separate entrance, bathroom and kitchen.

“I am proud to be a part of this Council team that worked hard to provide a creative solution with accessory dwelling units that fits the needs of Montgomery County,” said Council President Nancy Navarro. “We are in the midst of a region-wide housing challenge, and we need creative and effective strategies like this to address the availability of housing for our residents. I would also like to thank the community for their robust input and feedback. As a legislative body, we are committed to bolstering our code enforcement resources and taking appropriate measures to ensure that those who work here can live here and those who wish to retire here are able to do so in a safe and comfortable setting.”

ADUs are a popular solution for families that have relatives who want to live independently, but close by – such as an older grandparent or an adult child with disabilities. Also, the income provided by renting an ADU can make the difference in allowing seniors to age in place as the cost of living grows or allowing new families to be able to afford to buy a home in increasingly expensive areas. Finally, ADUs provide a more affordable option for people seeking to rent in many areas by increasing the supply of housing and reducing pressure on rents across the County.

“Affordable housing continues to be a complex issue in Montgomery County,” said Councilmember Will Jawando. “It affects seniors who would like to downsize and remain in their community or near their family; young adults who were born and raised in the county but cannot afford to live here on their own; and families with adult disabled children who are able to live with limited independence. ZTA 19-01 has gone through many work sessions in the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee and reflects changes based on input from County residents. ADUs do not represent an ultimate solution but instead provide one more alternative in the challenge to make housing affordable for all Montgomery County residents.”

“I appreciate the extensive and substantive community input we received throughout this legislative process and our efforts on the Council to thoughtfully address the issues and concerns of our residents,” said Councilmember Andrew Friedson. “Thanks to that feedback and careful deliberation, we reached a far better outcome on this zoning text change, especially with amendments limiting the size, maintaining existing parking requirements except in transit-accessible areas and introducing companion legislation to help monitor the impact of ADUs going forward.”

“I look forward to the positive benefits that will stem from the passage of ZTA 19-01, such as allowing more families to support their elderly relatives and family members in need, close to home,” said Councilmember Craig Rice.

ZTA 19-01 makes the following changes to the County’s zoning law covering ADUs:

  • Removes the prohibition on detached ADUs in lots smaller than one acre. The size of the detached ADUs must be the smaller of 10 percent of the lot size, 50 percent of the footprint of the principal dwelling; or 1200 sq. ft. Existing rules limiting the construction of accessory structures apply, including height limits, maximum lot coverage requirements, and stormwater requirements. In addition, the greater side and rear setbacks currently required for detached ADUs remain.
  • Removes the requirement for an additional parking space within one mile of Metro, Purple Line or MARC stations. Proposed ADUs require one off-street parking space in addition to the parking required for each detached house (typically two spaces). For areas outside of one mile, three off-street spaces are still required.
  • Allows for the conversion of existing, legally built structures into ADUs.
  • Clarifies that other rental uses (such as Airbnb) on a property that includes an ADU are prohibited.
  • Removes the prohibition on ADUs in new construction.
  • Removes the distance requirement restricting ADUs from being built within 300 to 500 feet of an existing ADU.

ADUs are a part of the Council’s continuing efforts to ensure that affordable, quality housing is available to residents at all income levels. While these units alone will certainly not solve the housing crisis, they do fill an important gap and can be paired with existing rental subsidy and other potential subsidy programs to reach an even deeper level of affordability.

ZTA 19-01 was first introduced on Jan. 15, 2019 and a public hearing was held on Feb. 26. The Council’s PHED Committee held three meetings before unanimously recommending adoption with amendments. The full Council reviewed ZTA 19-01 on June 18 and July 9 to make further amendments before approving the legislation today.

The changes will take effect on Dec. 31, 2019 together with Bill 22-19, which is a companion bill to amend the licensing code which was introduced on July 16, 2019. Bill 22-19 renames “Accessory Apartments” to “Accessory Dwelling Units” in the County Code, modernizes the standards for measuring basement ceiling heights, requires ADU applicants to certify that they meet any applicable HOA standards and notice requirements to affected HOAs, requires quarterly reporting on ADU issues by the County Executive, and requires that the property owner live on-site in either the principal dwelling or the ADU. A public hearing on Bill 22-19 is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 10 at 1:30 p.m.

Strengthening police oversight

Dear Resident:

As a community that provides leadership on important issues, Montgomery County has an opportunity to strengthen police work by building greater community support.

I know that we have an excellent Police Department – full of conscientious and highly professional public servants.

But we are obviously not immune from the challenges that communities all over the country are facing.

“Policing needs to go in a different direction on transparency and community engagement,” a local police chief recently shared with me as we discussed the situation around the Country and here at home. “Where we are now isn’t working.”

That is why, on June 18th, I am introducing legislation with Councilmember Will Jawando, supported by the NAACP, Identity, Casa de Maryland, ACLU, Jews United for Justice and other groups, to establish a Policing Advisory Commission.

The Commission would allow for “civilian” participation in Police Department policy formulation, using data and focusing on best practices, and strengthening the Council’s oversight role.

Unlike civilian oversight boards in other jurisdictions, this Commission would not address disciplinary matters. It would not review complaints about an officer, or investigate a police-involved incident. While those are crucial matters, Maryland state law denies a body like this jurisdiction over personnel matters.

Instead, this Commission would focus on the policies that could prevent these incidents from occurring in the first place. For example:

  • Community police — how can we become more of a community police force?
  • De-escalation training — is our program a best practice and is it well implemented?
  • Traffic stops — what are the outcomes from traffic stops? What does the data show? What is the cost/benefit?

There is no doubt that issues like these are appropriate for public discussion and oversight. In fact, given the profound consequences of police action, there is nothing more deserving of public discussion and oversight.

Historically, these kinds of policy issues are often addressed internally at the Department, with the police leadership making policy decisions with minimal oversight from the County Executive and Council and limited input from the public.

That is where a Commission comes in. With members drawn from residents who are experts in criminal justice policy as well as representing communities that have not always been heard on police issues, the body would meet and deliberate over policy matters that are of significant public concern. Researchers would support the Commission to help ensure a data-driven conversation.

The Commission would make recommendations to the Department and the County Council. A great example of this approach is successfully operating in Sacramento, where the initiative has earned support not only from community groups but also the police department there.

A strong coalition is advocating for the bill because, as the groups recently wrote in a letter to the Council and County Executive, the Commission “will become an important pathway to enhance trust between the community and the Police Department.”

You may have seen a recent editorial in the Washington Post about the proposal. The Post stated:

With more than 1 million residents, Montgomery is Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction. It is a bellwether and a leader whose example could prompt other localities to fashion more meaningful civilian oversight of law enforcement. It can move proactively now, or be forced to act later, under pressure and amid controversy, when an unwarranted death occurs at the hands of police. The former is the smarter way to go.

I agree, and I look forward to working through the legislative process with my Council colleagues over this summer and into the fall.

A public hearing is tentatively set for July 9 with committee and full Council worksessions to follow.

Thanks for reading and participating. If you have feedback, please share by emailing me at Councilmember.Riemer@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Sincerely,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Council to discuss Accessory Dwelling Units

Dear Resident:

On June 18, the County Council will discuss zoning code changes that support “Accessory Dwelling Units.” Here’s some important information I want to share with you.

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Starting with what ADUs are and what they are not: An ADU is not the same thing as renting out a house or renting out rooms in a house. An ADU is a private residence inside of a house, such as a basement apartment; or a backyard cottage or garage conversion.

Picture of an ADU

A detached ADU in green on the left

To get an ADU construction permit and license, the unit must have separation and privacy from the house as well as its own kitchen and a bathroom.

There are about 160,000 owner-occupied single-family detached homes in the County and about 15,000 rented single-family detached homes. But there are only 475 ADUs.

ADUs are a more targeted housing solution because they require owner occupancy on the property. That requirement puts some organic limits on ADUs as the arrangement has to be something that the homeowner welcomes as part of daily life.

Because ADUs require a kitchen and bath and a separate entrance as well as possibly on-site parking, ADUs require considerable construction. The cost of that will depend on a lot of factors, similar to any home renovation project. A modest basement conversion could be less than $50,000, while a backyard cottage could be 3 or 4 times that amount.

Benefits of ADUs

More affordable housing
ADUs are generally smaller than houses so they are more affordable as rentals. A 900 square foot basement apartment or a 700 square foot backyard cottage will rent for a lot less than a house. As a result ADUs can promote economic integration and diversity in communities by providing access to smaller and more affordable housing in otherwise very expensive areas.

Aging in place
ADUs can enable older, modest-income homeowners to age in place with a new source of income by renting out the ADU or by living in the ADU and renting out the house.

Families living together
ADUs are also a desired solution for parents seeking a way to live with adult children or with grandparents. While they certainly can all live in one house together with no ADU, having separation and privacy from an ADU while living together is for many a more appealing and affirming arrangement, including for families with an adult child with disabilities.

Smarter growth
A final benefit of ADUs is that they add housing where there is already infrastructure. The impacts of these units are dispersed across a County that already has about 369,000 housing units in total.

What changes are proposed?

Unfortunately, the County’s zoning rules generally treat this housing type as a nuisance to be avoided rather than a resource to be welcomed. Our byzantine restrictions are a large reason the County is only producing a few dozen ADUs a year, a pittance compared to communities that have embraced them and create several hundred per year. This zoning change aims to change that framework.

Montgomery County zoning laws essentially prohibit backyard cottages or detached garage conversions. The code requires a property owner to have at least one acre in order to build one. Homeowners with an acre are the property owners least likely to need one and they don’t build them.

The proposal before the Council, as amended by the Planning and Housing Committee (where I serve as Chair with Councilmembers Andrew Friedson and Will Jawando), would limit the size of backyard cottages in a thoughtful way. The proposal limits the size of new cottages to 10% of the size of the lot.

In other words, if you have a 6000 square foot lot, the maximum size cottage you can build is 600 square feet.

Existing structures (typically garages) are exempt from this rule, as they already exist and there is no additional visual impact of the structure. They would have to meet code, of course.

Basement units are allowed to be the same size as the basement of the house, whatever footprint that may be.

In the existing County code, interior ADUs (typically basement apartments) cannot be closer than 300 feet to the nearest other ADU. This restriction basically limits them to one per block. The Committee proposal deletes that restriction, seeking to be supportive of ADUs.

To address concerns about parking, the Committee proposal requires ADUs that are farther than one mile from Metro or the Purple Line Station to build an additional parking space on the property or apply for a waiver based on available street parking.

As for setbacks and height restrictions and storm water, the proposal does not change any of those rules from the existing code for accessory structures — the rules that exist for homeowners who might want to build a separate garage or studio or guest house on their property, for example.

While some say we should have stricter rules for ADUs than garages, I don’t share that view.

What protections are provided?

I recognize that there are some residents who find this housing solution problematic. If you are among them, please consider the following.

Owner Occupancy
First, owner occupancy is a requirement. The owner must live on the property. That naturally constrains how the ADUs will be used. For example, an investor can’t purchase a house, add an ADU, and then rent out both units.

More generally, a property owner is only going to allow a property to be used in a manner that the owner is willing to live with personally. The historic Town of Brookeville which strongly supports ADUs has noted the benefit of the owner occupancy rule.

Prohibition of short-term renting and other rental limits
Another key point is that the units may not be rented out as short-term rentals (i.e., Airbnb). Montgomery County homeowners are allowed, under certain circumstances, to rent out their homes or rooms in their homes on a short term basis. That right would not extend to ADUs.

Any homeowner who wanted to rent out the bedroom from an ADU on a short term basis would have to remove the features that make it an ADU, such as kitchen equipment or even the internal separation from the house.

As a result, space built for an ADU would have the same short-term rental value as any other spare bedroom or underutilized living space.

Another significant restriction is that no other rental would be allowed on the property. So an owner could not also rent out the main house or rooms in the house.

Inspections and code enforcement
ADUs have license and inspection requirements. Licenses can be taken away for noncompliance, and penalties can be significant.

Finally, after hearing from some neighborhoods about general crowding of housing and concerns about the capacity of the County to conduct ADU inspections, the Council just added 3 code enforcement positions to focus on inspections in residential neighborhoods. Those positions will be hired soon.

What about schools?

One of the common questions asked about expanding ADUs is about the impact of this new housing on schools. Given that many schools are crowded, it is a natural concern.

To find out the answer, our Planning department pulled the list of all the licensed ADUs in the County and cross checked the property address with school enrollment data at MCPS.

What they learned is that properties that have a house and an ADU have no more students on average (0.464 students per address) than properties with just a house (0.462 students). To be clear, the data point compares the house and the ADU combined, versus properties with just a house. There is no difference in school enrollment.

Given the owner occupancy requirement, this should not be surprising, when you think about it. A property owner with a family might bring in grandparents or a tenant; or a retired couple might bring in a young family; but for one family on a property to add a second family as a tenant would have a big impact on that first family. That’s why it doesn’t really happen.

I find this data to be highly persuasive that ADUs are exactly what we have suggested they will be: a tailored housing solution that makes a very big difference in small targeted ways.

What is the process from here?

On Tuesday, June 18, the County Council will hold a worksession on the Committee’s recommendation.

The Committee met 3 times in March and April to work the issue through, following a public hearing in February. The Planning Board also conducted a public hearing and worksessions.

Presumably the Council will consider amendments raised, if any, and then come back at a later date to vote.

Thanks for reading. If you have made it this far and have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Sincerely,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

My budget priorities

Dear Resident:

The County’s budget for the next year is done. There is good news to share, as well as unfinished business.

Our budget process has two stages. The Executive prepares a draft and submits it by March 15. The Council then makes changes and finalizes the budget by the end of May.

Here are some of my highlights from this year, reflecting my own priorities.

Starting with education, we fully funded the MCPS budget request, thanks particularly to an increase in state funding. We also fully funded Montgomery College. Neither were fully funded in the Executive’s budget. MCPS will now reduce class size guidelines further.

On child care and pre-k, this is the third year in a row that we will expand pre-k for low income kids. Including this year’s expansion, the number of poor children benefiting from full-day pre-k will reach 1500, from 750 three years ago. This has been my highest priority in early education policy.

I want to salute Council President Nancy Navarro and Council Education Committee Chair Craig Rice and for their work on early education, and the County Executive for including the funds in his budget. We are making progress, though we have more to do.

I’m particularly thrilled by our expansion of after school programs. I have worked hard to add programs every year to our budget. This year I was joined by Councilmembers Albornoz and Jawando as we added four new high poverty elementary schools to our comprehensive Excel Beyond the Bell program, bringing the total to 8 that we have added in 3 years.

Each of these programs serves 120 children, five days a week. With 8 schools, we will now reach nearly 1,000 elementary age children served every school day!

We also added 3 middle school programs and we created a new initiative called Skills for the Future to support youth STEM programs.

On transit, we were able to restore four of the seven routes proposed for reduced service in the Executive’s budget. I am disappointed that we could not restore all seven. Cutting bus service is sure to increase driving and works against our social equity and environmental goals.

I am however happy that RideOn and WMATA bus service will now be free to students, all the time. This should create a whole new generation of transit riders. Thanks Councilmember Evan Glass for your advocacy!

I am particularly grateful that my colleagues agreed to reject the Executive’s proposed cuts of $5 million to the bicycle and pedestrian “Priority Areas” program (BiPPA). This is a construction program that builds new safety infrastructure in areas of the County with older infrastructure. It has projects planned in Wheaton, Silver Spring, and along the Purple Line corridor. Thank you Transportation Chair Tom Hucker!

We also restored funding for new Metro station entrances in White Flint and Forest Glen, both badly needed to make these station areas more accessible. The Executive had proposed cutting them from the budget.

On the climate emergency, I want to thank my colleagues for supporting my proposal for $400,000 to begin a comprehensive climate change planning initiative.

And finally, we were able to restore crucial funding to our Parks system, which was slated for significant cuts in the executive’s budget. I want to thank Councilmember Friedson, our Council’s Lead for Parks, who pushed until we got it done.

You may wonder how the Council was able to fund these programs. The answer lies in changing certain priorities within the budget. We did not raise taxes. We did, however, make changes in other ways, including scaling back some compensation that was excessive.

The County Executive’s proposed 9% raises were not affordable. Scaling them back enabled the Council to add funding to many of these key priorities mentioned above. (Though my view is that the 7% raise the Council agreed to for many employees was still more than we can afford, and I opposed that proposal too).

So as for unfinished business: while we crafted a better budget, the County still has an underlying problem — we have a structural deficit. A structural deficit is when our revenues continually come in below our expenditures. It happened again this year. The budget that we passed is substantially funded by using reserves intended for retiree health expenses. That practice needs to end.

We need to fix our structural deficit by bringing our expenses in line with our revenues. The County Executive has talked about “right-sizing” County government, and Councilmembers have indicated support. That would help ensure that compensation does not grow faster than revenues, leaving room to fund critical priorities.

Going forward, we need to work together to make changes that will put us on a more sustainable path.

Thank you for reading!

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large