Monday, May 23, 2016

Metro Shutdowns Will Come Sooner for Prince Georgians

Photo by WMATA.
Under WMATA’s revised SafeTrack schedule issued last week, the 16-day planned shutdown of Metrorail service across the Anacostia River on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines will now occur two months earlier—from June 18 to July 3.

This shutdown, one of 15 planned “safety surges” of major Metrorail infrastructure repairs set to occur over the next year, will cause the greatest disruption to Prince George’s County riders. More than 20,000 people commute daily between Prince George’s County and downtown Washington, DC, or northern Virginia on the OR/BL/SV lines. About 5,000 additional commuters east of the Anacostia River (EOTR) in the District’s Ward 7 also rely on these lines. Thus far, however, county and District officials have not yet communicated any concrete plans for how they will assist these impacted individuals.

Metro had originally scheduled this shutdown for mid-August. But the agency had to move up this project in response to a May 11 directive from the Federal Transit Administration, which told Metro to prioritize certain repairs, including at a junction point on the elevated tracks east of the Stadium-Armory station.

County and District Officials Must Develop Mitigation Plans Now

With less than a month left before this major shutdown, local officials are running out of time to come up with plans to avoid a major commuter disaster for EOTR residents. We need a strategy, and we need it now.

Earlier this month, Prince George’s Urbanist strongly urged Metro to work with MARC, CSX, and/or Amtrak to develop a temporary commuter rail shuttle between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza along the old Baltimore & Potomac Railroad lines that parallel parts of the Orange Line. WMATA’s alternate board member for Prince George’s County, Malcom Augustine, indicated Metro was exploring this option; however, we have not received any further updates from Metro or MARC officials. Given the newly truncated timeline for this OR/BL/SV segment shutdown, it is unclear whether that shuttle could even be established in time.

In response to inquiries late last week by Prince George’s Urbanist, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T), Paulette Jones, indicated that the agency was still reviewing the revised SafeTrack plan but expected to have additional information to share in the coming days. Specifically, we asked DPW&T the following questions (among others):

  • Has DPW&T been in discussions with the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Maryland’s State Highway Administration (SHA) about coordinating the dedication of bus lanes (e.g., along Central Ave and East Capitol St, Addison Rd and Silver Hill Rd, and Pennsylvania Ave)?
  • What is the current capacity of the county’s local bus system (“TheBus”) to provide mitigation during SafeTrack, and has DPW&T explored expanding current capacity?
  • Who specifically at DPW&T is coordinating the mitigation efforts?

Photo by ifumth on Flickr.

To Spur Things Along, We Should Also Suggest Ideas

Hopefully, we will have additional information to report from DPW&T soon. In the meantime, perhaps we should help crowdsource some ideas for them. Here are some ideas that immediately come to mind:

►Direct (Nonstop) Bus Shuttles to Eastern Market Along Dedicated Lanes: DPW&T should urge Metro to alter its current shuttle bus plan so that it provides free direct shuttle service for EOTR commuters between Benning Road or Minnesota Ave stations and Eastern Market station. Currently, Metro is proposing a shuttle that would make intervening stops at Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue, which will both be closed for rail service during the shutdown.

Given the high number of EOTR commuters who will be depending on these shuttle buses, it is highly unlikely that there will be additional space to pick up additional riders at Statium-Armory or Potomac Avenue. Additionally, stopping at these stations will only further delay EOTR commuters from reaching a working Metrorail station. Besides, there are already ample Metrobus routes that can connect riders at those two stations to downtown Washington. And the Potomac Avenue station is also in easy walking or biking distance to the Eastern Market station.

To facilitate the journey, these buses should travel in dedicated lanes along East Capitol Street, 14th Street, and South Carolina Avenue.

►Direct Bus Shuttle Between Addison Road and Suitland: In addition to the OR/BL/SV shuttles provided from Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road stations, Metro and DPW&T should establish a free shuttle bus service from Addison Road station to Suitland station. The shuttle should run in dedicated lanes, where possible, along Addison Road South, Walker Mill Road, and Silver Hill Road.

►Nonpeak Fares For Any Impacted Rail Line: To encourage continued ridership and goodwill, WMATA should waive peak fares for any segment of the Metrorail system that is projected to experience a greater than 20 percent reduction in peak service due to SafeTrack.

Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr
►Rent School Buses to Increase Capacity: It's not glamorous, but school buses are actually a cheap and effective way of safely transporting people of all ages. They seat as many adults as traditional commuter buses—sometimes more—and are perfectly appropriate for short-distance trips. Many companies have large fleets of charter school buses available for rental. For example, a simple Google search uncovered this company, which boasts a fleet of 17,000 buses. If DPW&T and DDOT could rent, say, 100 of these school buses for use during the 16-day shutdown, to augment WMATA's planned 40 additional shuttle buses, EOTR commuters might realistically be able to continue relying on public transit to get to and from their jobs.

What other ideas do you have? Please leave them in the comments.

(This article was modified on 05/24/2016 to include additional suggestions.)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Here's How MARC and CSX Could Help Lessen the Burden of Metro Shutdowns

Photo by Ryan Stavely on Wikipedia
The entire Washington metropolitan region let out a collective groan on Friday, when WMATA's new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, announced his ambitious plan to repair Metrorail’s aging and increasingly unreliable system over the next year. Deep down, we all know that these repairs absolutely need to happen and that we’ve put them off for far too long.

But as we begin the hard work of restoring our Metrorail system to its former glory, we also need to make sure that the region’s commuters can continue to rely on other modes of public transit to get them where they need to go reliably and speedily. To that end, one strategy that Maryland and DC officials should seriously consider is establishing a temporary MARC commuter rail shuttle route between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza via the CSX freight rail lines. Such a route could greatly alleviate the congestion that Metro riders on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines east of the Anacostia River (EOTR) would otherwise experience during the next year.

Metro’s repairs will significantly impact Prince George’s riders

WMATA’s “SafeTrack” plan will require complete shutdowns of certain segments of Metro’s 118-mile rail system for weeks at a time. Even when stations aren’t shut down, many will have extended periods of single-tracking or will experience significantly reduced train service levels. Beginning in June and continuing for nearly a year, Metro will carry out 15 of these long-term “safety surge” projects.

In Prince George’s County, the most significant impact of SafeTrack will occur late this summer, between August 20 and September 6, when Metro plans to shut down OR/BL/SV service between Eastern Market and Benning Road (BL/SV) / Minnesota Avenue (OR). This will sever the Metrorail connection to downtown Washington for nearly half of Prince George’s Metro stations and three of the four Metrorail lines in the county.

Image from WMATA

Similarly, in November and December of this year and March of next year, Metrorail service on the OR/BL/SV lines EOTR will be significantly reduced because of single tracking and closures on other segments of those lines.

To help mitigate the impact of the track work and shutdowns, WMATA plans to have 40-50 additional buses on hand to provide alternate service. It will also run more eight-car trains, since service will be less frequent. Finally, Metro has requested the support of the affected jurisdictions (Maryland, Virginia, the District, and the counties and cities where Metro operates) to implement the necessary traffic control measures to facilitate increased bus and private automobile traffic. But is that enough?

For the types of large-scale, long-term repairs that WMATA is envisioning over the next year, it is going to take more than a few extra buses, dedicated bus and HOV lanes, and traffic cops to avert a commuter crisis. The Chicago Transit Authority, for example, marshaled over 400 buses and had a months-long public outreach campaign before embarking on its five-month shutdown of part of its rail network in 2013.

Similarly, it may not be realistic to ask governmental and private employers to allow significant chunks of their workforce to work remotely for weeks at a time. Those measures may work for a short-term shutdown, such as the 29-hour emergency repair that Metro did in March, but they are not a long-term strategy.

A temporary MARC shuttle could ease a lot of the pain

Fortunately, the CSX-owned freight rail lines that parallel the WMATA Orange line tracks EOTR may provide a workable solution. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), which runs the MARC commuter rail system, could work with CSX, Amtrak, and DDOT to establish a temporary MARC shuttle between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza from at least August 2016 through April 2017.

The L’Enfant commuter rail station is currently used by Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Amtrak. A separate branch of CSX railway connects the L'Enfant station to Washington’s Union Station from the south.

MARC currently serves Union Station via three other routes from the north, including its most popular Penn Line service via Baltimore and New Carrollton, on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. But that existing service is already oversaturated and would not be able to accommodate the masses of additional OR/BL/SV line Metrorail passengers in Prince George's County that will be impacted by the SafeTrack shutdowns.

Currently, there is no MARC station or platform at Deanwood, but as the pictures below show, there are three CSX freight rail tracks directly adjacent to the northern (inbound) track of the Deanwood Metro station:

Deanwood Metro Station. Image from Google Earth.

Deanwood Metro Station Platform. Photo by author.

That segment of the CSX freight rail network, called the Landover Subdivision, is not currently used for passenger service, although it was originally the main Baltimore & Potomac Railroad passenger route between Baltimore and Washington, DC. CSX has at times been reluctant to allow passenger service on its freight lines. But in light of the impending regional transportation crisis resulting from WMATA's planned SafeTrack initiative, we should not assume that CSX would not be willing to make the necessary accommodations to allow for passenger service along the Landover Subdivision.

CSX is a good corporate citizen and has worked with District, Maryland, and federal officials to allow passenger service on its other rail lines in the region. Additionally, under federal law, Amtrak has the ability to prioritize passenger service over any freight rail line, and it could be called in to work with MTA and CSX to establish such temporary regional service in this situation if necessary.

Establishing temporary MARC service can happen quickly

This modular platform at a Chicago Metra rail station
 was erected in three days. Photo by Composite Advantage.
Within a matter of days, MTA could quickly erect a modular platform (like this, this, or this), stairway, and ADA-compliant ramp on the northern side of the CSX tracks, at Polk St NE, which is connected to the Deanwood Metro station via an existing underpass.

Similarly, with a little additional effort, a second elevated platform with stairs and even a temporary elevator could be erected at the southern end of the CSX tracks at the L’Enfant station, along Virginia Ave SW, between 6th and 7th Streets, to provide additional capacity for passenger boarding and alighting there. (As an example, look at these great photos of a temporary elevated platform at Chicago's Pulaski Station.)

The MARC shuttle could run every 15-40 minutes between Deanwood and L’Enfant, depending on the time of day. Orange line customers could ride the Metro from New Carrollton, Landover, or Cheverly to Deanwood and then transfer to MARC. Blue and Silver line customers could ride Metro to the Addison Road station and then take a free express shuttle bus to the nearby Deanwood station.

Each of the OR/BL/SV Metro stations in Prince George's has ample commuter parking, which should be free or heavily discounted during this emergency period to encourage commuters not to drive into the District. Similarly, those commuters transferring back into the Metrorail system at Deanwood or L'Enfant from the MARC shuttle should receive a credit for the Prince George's portion of their Metro fare.

L'Enfant VRE Station. Photo by VRE.

This temporary MARC shuttle could effectively transport thousands of impacted Prince George’s OR/BL/SV line riders per day to and from downtown, and it would do so much more efficiently than 50 additional Metro buses could ever hope to do.

To encourage ridership, the cost of the MARC shuttle should be minimal (e.g., not more than $2.50 each way, and with eligibility for the $0.50 SmarTrip discount for inter-modal transfers from Metrorail or Metrobus). Conductors should use handheld on-board fare collection devices that allow for customers to pay with their SmarTrip, debit, or credit cards.

Over an extended period of repairs, such as those we will face during the SafeTrack program, this temporary MARC shuttle could provide a realistic rail alternative that would keep the region’s commuters out of their cars and committed to transit. WMATA and governmental officials owe it to the public to consider these kinds of creative options.

Friday, February 12, 2016

BREAKING: Prince George’s Council Wants Its “Call-Up” Authority Back

The Prince George’s County Council is asking the local county delegation of the Maryland House of Delegates to pass a bill that would allow the council to resume its destructive practice of interfering with the county Planning Board’s decisions on individual development projects. A subcommittee is holding a another hearing on the bill tomorrow, February 12, at 4:00 pm on February 18 at 9:00 am in Annapolis, to consider the bill and possibly move it forward for the full delegation’s consideration.

This bill seeks to overturn a recent unanimous decision by Maryland’s highest court, which held that the County Council is only permitted to overturn Planning Board decisions if they lack evidentiary support or are arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise illegal.

The court held that the Planning Board—part of a bi-county planning and zoning agency formally known as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC)—has the legal authority and responsibility to render final decisions on individual development projects. The County Council, on the other hand, is responsible for appointing the Planning Board members and setting the general zoning and land use regulations that the Planning Board must interpret and apply.

Prior to last summer’s decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, county council members would routinely use a discretionary “call-up” procedure to force a review of the Planning Board’s rulings on individual development projects, even when no one else complained about them, or even if there was nothing legally wrong with how the Planning Board decided the case. During these reviews, council members would often impose additional conditions on developers, even if those decisions were not required by the Zoning Ordinance, and even if those conditions contradicted the Planning Board’s analysis.

Sometimes council members used the “call-up” procedure in response to complaints from constituents or citizen groups who were dissatisfied with the Planning Board’s decisions. Other times, council members would unilaterally call projects up if they didn’t like them, for whatever reason. And all too often, corrupt council members have historically used this power to exact campaign contributions, political favors, and even under-the-table cash payments from developers, as part of an insidious “pay-to-play” scheme.

Council “Call-Up” is Bad for County's Development Prospects

Whatever the reasons for its use, the “call-up” procedure renders the county’s development review process arbitrary, uncertain, and usually more expensive—which is the exact opposite of what should be happening if the county wants to attract quality development, particularly around its Metro stations. Many respected developers have refused to consider development opportunities in Prince George’s County because they don't want to be subjected to the political whims of individual council members. And why would they, when they can just go to the adjoining county and have a much more certain understanding of how a development application will be processed?

Prince George's County Council
The only people who win under the old “call-up” regime are the greedy and power-hungry County Council members, who unfortunately cannot seem to look beyond themselves and make decisions that are in the best interests of moving Prince George’s County forward. Even if the council were motivated solely by a desire to respond to constituents’ concerns about particular developments (which is totally not the case), it’s still a bad idea to reinstate the “call-up” procedure, because of the politicization and arbitrariness it brings to the development process.

If council members really want to help out constituents and developers alike, they should focus on making the zoning rules clearer, simpler, and easier for the Planning Board and the county permitting office to administer. (This, by the way, is the goal of the Zoning Rewrite Project that M-NCPPC is currently engaged in.)

Hopefully Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker will speak out on this and urge the county delegation and/or the legislature to kill this awful bill. Bringing back “call-up” review certainly won’t help his efforts to bring more transit-oriented development to the county’s largest Metro stations, or anywhere else for that matter.

The county delegation needs to hear from you if you oppose this bill—and you should definitely oppose it! Please reach out to the subcommittee members and the full county delegation and tell them to reject Local Bill No. PG/MC 111-16 (HB 1025).

Saturday, January 30, 2016

WMATA Gives Pedestrians a Serious Snow Job

Addison Road Metro Station
If anyone should know the importance of providing safe pedestrian paths to transit stations, it’s a transit authority. But apparently, WMATA can’t be bothered with all that.

Metro’s Addison Road Station, a Blue and Silver line stop in Prince George’s County, has about a quarter-mile of street frontage on one of the county’s main arterial roads, Central Avenue (MD-214).

On Friday, January 29—5 days after the last snowflake fell from #Snowmageddon2016—the sidewalks abutting Metro’s property along Central Avenue were still slicked over with snow, slush, and ice. Metro knew it, and customers had complained about it, but the transit agency just didn’t seem to care.

A Two-Day Quest to Clear Snow from Metro's Sidewalks

I first encountered the problem the day before, on Thursday, January 28, as I was heading back to my office in DC for the first time in nearly a week. As I left my house, which is about a 10-minute walk to the Metro station, I approached Central Avenue with a healthy sense of trepidation about getting to the station safely. That’s with good reason, since people have been struck by cars and killed in Prince George’s while walking in the roadway to get to a Metro station after a snowstorm, because the sidewalks were blocked with snow.

When I got to Metro’s property, I expected to be able finally to have a relatively peaceful walk for the rest of my trip, because I just knew the transit authority’s sidewalks would be clear, right? Wrong! The sidewalks were in atrocious condition.

I alerted the station manager to the situation, and she first told me that it wasn’t Metro’s responsibility to clear the sidewalks. I told her that wasn’t true, that those sidewalks were along Metro’s property line, and that Metro had to clear its walkways just like everybody else. With a somewhat skeptical facial expression, she told me she’d follow up on it.

Just to be sure, I also went online to Metro’s website and reported the problem myself. And even though I reported it as a safety issue, the automated response I got back from Metro said they would get back to me in 5-7 business days. Because…you know…why would Metro ever need to address a safety problem right away?

I didn’t return home via Metro that Thursday evening, so my next trip to the Addison Road Station was on Friday morning. To my shock, the sidewalks along Metro’s property were still a mess. The poor lady walking ahead of me in this photo was slipping and sliding all over the place, and I wasn’t doing much better:

Once I finally got to the station, I approached the same station manager I had spoken to the previous day and asked her, somewhat incredulously this time, whether she had followed up as she said she would. She said she had, and that it was her understanding that the county or the state was supposed clear the sidewalks.
Seeing that I was getting nowhere with the station manager, I tweeted the above picture and tagged Metro, Prince George’s County Executive, Rushern Baker, and a Washington Post reporter.

Metro replied to the tweet a few minutes later, told me it wasn’t their responsibility to clean the sidewalk, and forwarded me an article about who’s responsibility it was to clean bus stops.

After clarifying that I wasn’t talking about a bus stop, but rather Metro’s own property, the Metro rep thanked me and tweeted that he would report the problem.

So when I got back to Addison Road nine hours later, the sidewalk was definitely all clear, right? Wrong! Here’s how it looked on my return trip:

Metro boasts on its website that it has all the equipment and personnel it needs to handle snowy weather:
Metro has nearly 600 pieces of snow equipment available to tackle snow and ice accumulation at stations, rail yards, parking garages, and bus facilities. Hundreds of employees and contractors can be called upon to respond to snow conditions.
And in fact, there is plenty snow removal equipment at Addison Road Metro Station. I’ve seen it. I saw it yesterday, even. And I know it’s being used, because the parking decks, bus loops, and surrounding vehicle infrastructure at the station are never snowy or icy. Also, the area directly in front of the station entrance is usually well plowed and salted. So why the disconnect with the sidewalks?

Late Friday evening, County Executive Baker replied to the series of tweets and asked one of Metro’s Maryland board representatives, Malcolm Augustine, to follow up on this matter. Mr. Augustine promptly replied, apologized, and promised to follow up:

I very much appreciate County Executive Baker’s stepping in to address this matter, and likewise appreciate the prompt response of Metro’s board member, Mr. Augustine. But seriously, it should not take the county’s chief executive and a Metro board member’s personal involvement to clear a sidewalk after a snowstorm.

Metro is required under its interstate compact to comply with local laws, including sidewalk clearing laws. But setting that aside: Metro’s whole raison d’ĂȘtre is to provide and facilitate safe, convenient transit ridership in the region. It should be a community leader when it comes to ensuring that pedestrians can come and go safely to and from their facilities.

Just as Metro is recommitting itself to improve safety in its rail and bus network, it must also do a better job in the future to ensure that its stations and surrounding areas, including sidewalks, are safe and accessible to all of its customers.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Prince George’s Should Allow Dead Sprawl Projects to Rest in Peace

Photo by Seamoor on Flickr
Ever since 2009, the Prince George’s County Council has continually extended the approval periods for unbuilt development projects, mostly consisting of single-family residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and away from transit.

Now, council members are considering legislation that would give these long-dead projects yet another two-year extension, through the end of 2017. It’s time for the council to give up the ghost on these projects.

Originally, the council granted these extensions to provide temporary relief to distressed developers in the wake of the Great Recession. But the recession is over. And while housing prices continue to rebound in Prince George’s, there is no current market demand for massive new single-family subdivisions outside of the Beltway. Indeed, buyers are still able to garner great deals on many spacious suburban homes that went into foreclosure during the housing bust.

These Zombie Projects Are Clogging the County's Pipeline

As I noted in 2013, it makes no sense for the council to extend the approval windows for these types of scattered sprawl projects. County planners have already concluded that such development is unhelpful for the county because it makes it “difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan.”

More importantly, planners note that the county’s continuing lack of focus on high-quality mixed-use transit-oriented development puts it “at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”

Despite those exhortations against sprawl development, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude in its current General Plan that the county actually has “too many” Metro stations, even before taking into account the future Purple Line light rail stations, and that developing all of them would “undermine economic growth.”

But if the council would instead just allow these old projects to die a natural death, the projected pipeline of residential development would dramatically decrease, and the county could readjust its long-term growth projections to include more transit-oriented development inside the Beltway. In particular, the county could decide to direct some much-needed attention toward its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near the D.C. border.

TAKE ACTION: The council’s Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider the latest extension bills, CB-80-2015 and CB-81-2015, on Wednesday, September 30, at 1:30 pm in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building. You can use this link to address your comments to PZED Chair Andrea Harrison, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Court Limits Prince George’s County Council’s Role in Development Review

Judges of the Maryland Court of Appeals
In a striking 100-page decision issued earlier this month, Maryland’s highest court ruled unanimously that the Prince George’s County Council lacks the legal authority to decide for itself whether individual development projects should be approved or disapproved.

Rather, the council must generally uphold the decisions of the Planning Board in development review matters unless those decisions are unsupported by substantial evidence or are otherwise arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

To borrow a phrase famously uttered by Vice President Joe Biden in 2010, this case is “a big f***ing deal!

This landmark decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals strengthens the hand of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), the state-created planning and zoning agency that operates in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

According to the high court, Maryland law gives the Prince George’s County Planning Board (one of two subcomponents of MNCPPC) broad legal authority to act in a variety of local land-use matters that affect Prince George’s County, including approval of subdivisions, assignment of street names and numbers, preparation of comprehensive plans, and review of development proposals.

The authority of the Prince George’s County Council (known as the “District Council” when it acts in a land use capacity) is more discretely defined under state law, but still quite significant, according to the court. For instance, in addition to appointing the members of the Planning Board, the council possesses the legislative authority to approve and amend the county’s zoning ordinance and zoning map, including any rezoning of land in the county. The council must also approve and amend the comprehensive plans that are initially drafted by the Planning Board.

Nevertheless, the council’s authority over individual development plans and projects has been significantly curtailed by this recent decision.

The Basic Holding: The County Council Cannot Second-Guess the Planning Board

The decision significantly reduces the amount of political influence that the Prince George’s County Council can exert over developers and individual development projects. Traditionally, the council has liberally used its discretionary authority to “call up” a case decided by the Planning Board for further review, even when the developer and opposing parties of record choose not to challenge the Planning Board’s decision.

In those discretionary “call-up” reviews, and in any appeals of Planning Board decisions initiated by the parties, the Prince George’s County Council always purported to exercise “original jurisdiction,” meaning that it could choose to ignore the Planning Board’s reasoning and come to a different decision based on the evidence developed during the Planning Board hearing.

The Court of Appeals, in upholding two lower court decisions, determined that the Prince George’s County Council had misinterpreted the scope of its authority in these types of second-tier administrative reviews.

The court said the council was not authorized to exercise original jurisdiction when reviewing Planning Board decisions, whether on an appeal initiated by the parties or in a discretionary “call-up” review. Rather, similar to the judiciary, the council could only exercise “appellate jurisdiction” in these matters—which means that it could overturn the Planning Board’s determinations only if they were not supported by evidence, or if they were legally erroneous.

In other words, the council could not substitute its own judgment for that of the Planning Board, even if the evidence would allow for both results.

Notably, unlike Prince George’s, the Montgomery County Council does not have a second-tier administrative review process for individual development review applications decided by the Montgomery Planning Board. Instead, all such disputes are resolved directly by the courts.

How We Got Here: An Epic Battle to Build a CVS

Photo by JeepersMedia on Flickr
This lawsuit arose out of a nearly 10-year effort to build a retail center with a CVS pharmacy on a 4-acre parcel of land known as the Edwards Property, located in Adelphi, Maryland. The Court of Appeals described the ensuing struggle as “a battle of almost epic proportions” waged by the various litigants.

In 2004, the property owner applied to the District Council for a rezoning of the Edwards Property from Rural-Residential (R-R) to Local Activity Center (LAC), a mixed-use floating zone that allowed for small-scale retail development. The owner included the required Basic Plan setting forth a general description of future land uses on the property. The council approved the rezoning request, subject to a list of conditions which were included in the ordinance approving the rezoning.

In 2011, Zimmer Development Company submitted simultaneous applications for a Comprehensive Design Plan (CDP) and a Specific Design Plan (SDP) to the Planning Board for review. These plans set forth in more concrete detail the developer’s plans for developing the Edwards Property. MNCPPC staff reviewed and recommended approval of Zimmer’s plans, and after a public evidentiary hearing, the Planning Board approved the plans with a list of conditions, finding that the applications met the requirements of the LAC zone approved by the council.

Although no one appealed the Planning Board’s decision, the council nevertheless “called up” the decision for review. After hearing oral arguments, the council remanded the decision to the Planning Board for reconsideration of three specific issues regarding whether Zimmer needed to provide additional mitigation to lessen the impact of the proposed retail center on the surrounding community. The Planning Board held another hearing in 2012 and essentially reapproved Zimmer’s application on similar conditions, making specific findings in response to the three areas of concern noted by the council.

As it did with the first Planning Board decision, the council “called up” the Planning Board’s post-remand decision, even though nobody had appealed it. This time, the council unanimously voted to disapprove Zimmer's application after the council member in whose district the Edwards Property lay spoke against it.

The council’s unanimous denial of the development project is an example of another well-known and much-derided practice called “council courtesy,” whereby council members effectively exercise unilateral veto power over development projects in their districts, regardless of the merits of the proposal.

The council's resolution listed 14 reasons for its denial of Zimmer's development application, including failure to comply with various conditions of the original LAC zone. None of those reasons related to the three issues the council first complained of in its original "call-up" review and remand. Zimmer's appeal of the council's denial in the courts ultimately resulted in the high court decision earlier this month.

The case is County Council of Prince George’s County v. Zimmer Development Co., No. 64, Sept. Term, 2014 (Md. Aug. 20, 2015).

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Baker’s “Compromise” Tax Hike for Schools Plan Still Misses

County Executive Baker. Image by MDGovpics on flickr.
In a hastily arranged press conference earlier today, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker finally threw in the towel on his ill-conceived and politically doomed plan to dramatically raise property and other local taxes to fund a $133 million increase in the public schools budget.

But in a final “Hail Mary” effort less than 24 hours before the scheduled County Council vote, he’s now proposing a “compromise” plan for a $65 million increase.

The problem for the county executive is that simply cutting a bad plan in half does not transform it into a good plan.

Claiming that he had heard the public’s voices in opposition to his original request over the last several weeks, Baker essentially adopted the purported compromise proposal that the county Chamber of Commerce had floated last week—the same one he flatly panned at the time. In addition, Baker said he’d support a sunset of any tax increases in 2020, after the projected education revenues from the new MGM Casino at National Harbor had a chance to come in.

Baker’s latest proposal came with no financial specifics as to how he envisions the $65 million infusion being allocated—and Baker’s spokesperson did not provide a response when asked for specific figures. However, the county executive did indicate that teacher pay increases, pre-kindergarten expansion, and school-based budgeting should remain priorities. He also claims that anything less than $65 million would not “move the needle.”

Without providing specific numbers at this late stage, Baker’s proposal simply cannot be taken as a serious effort to urge new ideas to the council. Instead, the county executive’s proposal seems designed to salvage a partial victory out of a proposal that was headed for certain defeat tomorrow.

The CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), Dr. Kevin Maxwell, did not appear with Baker at his press conference today and offered no comment in response to his eleventh-hour revised proposal.

Earlier this week, I suggested that the council should adopt a modified version of Dr. Maxwell’s original $1.84 billion budget request. I still urge the council to take that course tomorrow, for all the reasons previously stated. At the very least, Dr. Maxwell’s budget was well thought out and contains specific numbers—which is way more than can be said of the county executive’s plan.