Happy New Year to everyone. The beginning of any new year gives rise to reflections on the issues that held our attention during the last year. Hopefully, we gain a larger perspective in looking back and the ability to apply what we have learned to the future. I've been struck by the prevalence of two concepts and the collision course they travel.
During the 25th anniversary celebration of the Agricultural Reserve, Royce Hanson, its chief architect and a former Planning Board Chair, suggested we consider what we mean by the term "in perpetuity." Do we truly intend to protect the substance and value of a preservation area? Or are we just holding it in readiness for some future development? During 2005, a volley of issues tested our commitment to this concept - not only with Private Institutional Facilities (see Planning and Zoning Report on next page) and sewer extensions in the Agricultural Reserve, but with the C&O Canal National Park and the newly acquired Serpentine Barrens Conservation Park. What kind of uses and liberties do we allow within fragile ecological communities we say we are dedicated to preserving "in perpetuity?"
The other concept I'm wrestling with is "inevitability" - the idea that "it" has to happen and can't be stopped. Inevitability is used to justify just about anything, especially growth and really bad development projects. Like the new Kendale School, too large for where it is sited, with environmental implications that ought to embarrass the School Board that fostered it. Or, Clarksburg as the wild-west, where we just had to grow larger by building a town far from any public transit and threatening the most pristine watersheds left in our county. This was bad enough, but look at the implementation. Site Plans disregarded and developers taking advantage of little or no oversight to do what they wanted. Was that too, inevitable? And, is it now inevitable that we have to wrest power from a weakened Planning Commission and give it to the branches of government even more susceptible to political influence from those same developers?
Nowhere is the collision course of these two concepts more vivid than with assumption that the ICC is inevitable, inching closer to reality in 2005 while revealing potential tolls of up to $6 per day and dramatically increasing construction cost estimates each year. The Paint Branch watershed, which stands to take the brunt of environmental impacts both in short term construction ravages and in longer term water quality decline, is a Class III stream (the highest category in Maryland) that Montgomery County has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect through parkland acquisition, low density zoning, and enhanced storm water treatment. The "inevitable" here is the increased growth, forest and parkland loss, and water quality degradation to a stream we also vowed to protect under the Clean Water Act.
To complete the circle back to the Agricultural Reserve, we need only connect the dots on a map of the proposed ICC with the Techway ambitions of Virginia, and what we see is another bridge over the Potomac River and a highway through the western residential "green wedge," quite possibly at Blockhouse Point Conservation Park, or even through the Ag Reserve itself. The curious thing about accepting "the inevitable" is that it becomes the argument for projects that make our promise of "perpetuity" impossible.
December was the month when all the action on this legislation occurred, and now that the dust has settled a bit we can start to see what we achieved. The C&O Canal Task Force formed by Congressman Chris Van Hollen was a key player in the outcome. On December 1 the Transportation & Environment Committee of the County Council accepted all the Task Force recommendations and transmitted them to the full Council.
The legislation was presented in two pieces on December 6. The first, an Expedited Act to (1) repeal current maximum penalties ($1 per square foot); (2) add criminal penalties as a sanction for willful noncompliance; (3) add two new factors when considering the amount of an administrative civil penalty; and (4) allow a penalty to include the value of any conservation easement needed to enforce restoration required. The second piece was a resolution specifically to increase the maximum amount of monetary penalties. The fee-in-lieu was increased from $.30 per square foot to $.90 per square foot (fee-in-lieu is the cost of replacing forest when new development projects cannot meet forest conservation requirements). The maximum fine for a cutting violation of forest was increased to $9 per square foot. Both resolutions were passed on December 13.
These penalty increases and amplifications were accomplished without tampering with the codified version of the law, which sorely needs improvements, and both the Canal Task Force and citizens cooperating in dedicated work groups are looking at more sweeping changes. Though the Forest Conservation Law in Montgomery County is the most stringent in Maryland we are still losing forest every year. Opening the codified portion of the law will be a more difficult and challenging task.
Normandy Farm: The hearing on the zoning change to the Country Inn Zone for Normandy Farm was held on December 19. Our concerns over the accessory uses that are allowed in the zone were seen to be met because the applicant would need to return to the Council to modify their development plan on which the zoning change would be granted. Most of the allowable accessory uses are not part of the plan.
Public Forum on the Proposed Development Review/Permit Process and Legislation: The Planning Board will hear testimony on several Zoning Text Amendments and a bill that would make significant changes to the way in which site plans are enforced and overseen. We will participate at the hearing and report in more detail at the January WMCCA meeting.
Private Institutional Facilities (PIF) uses in the Rural Density Transfer (RDT) zone: The Council has taken action to prohibit community water and sewer service to be used for PIFs in the RDT zone, a position which we strongly supported, and denied sewer category changes for a number of large churches which had requested public sewer and water in the Ag Reserve (RDT zone). Two of the requested category changes for church uses - one in Cloverly (RE-2 zone) and one in the Upper Rock Creek Master Plan area (RE-1 and R-200 zone) - were granted for both public water and sewer.
Check the web site for information on issues we are working on.