Our Upcoming Tree Ordinance — Watch Out!

By Mary King

Get ready!  The city will soon make decisions concerning trees on your property.  Any public tree in public right-of-way or on property owned by the City, or a tree on private residentially zoned property that is 12” diameter or greater will now belong to the City Urban Forest! And a tree 40” in circumference is considered irreplaceable and will be designated a Heritage Tree.  Note, all trees in areas of mixed use zoning that includes student housing will be exempt from this ordinance!

In Phase One, the City will require you to obtain a permit to prune a tree more than 20% or to remove a tree.  If no permit is obtained in conjunction with performed tree work, the property owner will pay a penalty of $500 per tree.  

Permits will be issued after an evaluation by the City to determine IF the tree may be removed.  Whoopee! Trees less than 12” in diameter will get an automatic ok to be cut down. All others will have to be evaluated by many factors such as: overall health, potential hazards, and “desirability” of preserving the tree by reason of its age, size, or outstanding “quality”. (These terms all sound like reasons to say no!) If you win the City’s quality test, you get to pay for additional maintenance of the tree!

Soon thereafter, Phase Two will kick in.  In addition to getting a permit, you will be required to replace trees taken down.  Trees in the 12 to 16” diameter range will require one tree replanting; a $250 penalty will be applied if you do not comply.  

Trees greater than 16” in diameter will require two tree plantings or a $500 fine.  The proposed City ordinance states that “replacement trees should be planted on the same property when practicable.”  It’s your problem if you don’t have room!  Just pay up if you don’t have space, or ask a neighbor- that was the suggestion of an earlier version of this ordinance.  

One exception to this requirement states that those property owners demonstrating financial hardship don’t have to pay – but the ordinance doesn’t say how that financial hardship will be determined and it has never been discussed. Oh, and your replacement tree species shall be approved by the City, and must meet the City size guidelines, too. 

So, what do you do if you disagree with the City’s tree permit decision?  Lucky you; you get to appeal! First, you must get a second opinion by a third-party assessor who does an advanced “level 3” assessment and then will provide a written report of the findings with recommendations.  This report may cost well over $1,000, but don’t worry, the City will pay half the cost!  This report must be provided to the public works director for review. 

If you are still denied, you may appeal to the College Park Tree and Landscape Board, in writing, to the City Clerk within 15 business days of the date of the denial.  The TLB will consider your appeal at their next board meeting.  They will supposedly evaluate all information including any mitigation proposed and make a final decision within 30 days of the meeting.  And if you are still denied, you may appeal directly to the Mayor and Council, in writing, within 15 days of TLB’s decision. 

It took the TLB two years to think up all these ways to supposedly help our tree canopy.  It’s a pity they didn’t consider some facts. First, none of this intrusive ordinance into private property will actually increase tree canopy – an exchange of one or two new small trees will not equal the loss of a large canopy tree nor increase our canopy City-wide.  

Second, the whole focus of the ordinance to control resident-owned property is based on incorrect data from the City’s consultant, SavATree, which states that residents own the majority of land in the city.  Another incorrect conclusion from SavATree states that residents own over 70% of land in the city!  

According to M-NCPPC, residents’ properties are comprised of 1,114.26 acres, the University of Maryland has 1,020.39 acres and M-NCPPC has 428.23 acres—all of which carry the residential zoning code.  But only one of these ownership categories is the individual homeowner! What a big mistake!  

There are 3,610 acres in the city.  A little math reveals that the residents – apartments, townhouses, single family homes- hold only 31% of the land.  A further breakdown of acreage in the city reveals that mixed use zoning such as student apartments includes 385.65 acres, commercial zoning has 72.89 acres, and industrial use has 54.42 acres;  City right-of- way has about 500 acres.  

So why is the Council going forward with this ordinance that leaves all other property types, including UMD, untouched? That’s a good question that deserves an honest answer. 

In June this error was pointed out to the staff, the TLB, and the Council.  Knowing this factual  error has not even brought a pause in the desire of the Council and TLB to quickly adopt this ordinance.  Listen to the words from council meetings prior to July’s introduction from the Council.

Council’s concerns are expressed in unproven speculation: I hear buzz saws! Residents are taking down healthy trees!  (There are no statistics to support this.)

Equally speculative: The residents won’t like it, but we have to do it to save our tree canopy. The TLB has worked on this report for two years! It’s time to do this. (Unfortunately, bad facts still make for bad law!)

Third, the residential land already contributes 41% of the tree canopy.  We, residents, are doing our part to achieve the tree canopy goal of 40%.  

Development that has clear cut trees is a major cause of our tree canopy loss.  Acres of land have been cleared.  And the city has reaped immense tax revenue from these high dollar projects.  It is only right and fair that some portion of this money be used to increase College Park’s tree canopy.  Putting a few trees on residential property will not accomplish this.  

It only makes sense that the City needs tracts of land dedicated to remaining forested or mostly forested.  Conservation easements – a voluntary agreement that permanently limits the use of the land to protect its conservation value – should be investigated.  And the suggestion from Councilwoman Mackie to use project open space money to purchase land to set aside to keep open and wooded WAS NOT EMBRACED by the Council.  Instead, the Council is pursuing the residents with an ordinance to claim their trees as an urban forest, pursue fines, impose civil citations for noncompliance.  

A public hearing on this ordinance will be held on August 10 followed by a vote later in the Council session. Your voice is critical at the public hearing.  I urge you to attend the Zoom meeting and express your opinion. However, emails are also accepted but never made accessible to the public.

Send an email to the City Clerk, Janeen Miller, at jsmiller@collegeparkmd.gov and ask for a link to the council meetings.  Clicking this link is the easiest way of attending. Or access the meeting through a link on the City’s website:  www.collegeparkmd.gov.  Emails may be sent to:  cpmc@collegeparkmd.gov prior to 5 p.m. August 10. 

Our City Council often says they want to hear from the residents and desire more participation. I encourage you to do so! It will be worth the wait to say your piece before the Council. (You have three minutes to share your thoughts and may be very brief if you wish.) 

Tree canopy is very important.  However, this ordinance is a feel-good measure that punishes the residents and does little to address our tree canopy loss!  

City Permission needed to care for Your Trees

By Mary King

This month our City Council is considering an ordinance to require residents to apply for a permit before taking down or pruning a tree on their own property. In addition, this ordinance will require City-approved trees to be planted, preferably, on the same property where any trees were taken down, as well as the imposition of fines and citations for non-compliance.

The Tree and Landscape Board (TLB), an unelected City committee, has been working on this proposal for two years. A little background is necessary to understand how this proposal has come about.

BACKGROUND

During the work session of March 2017, the Mayor and Council requested investigation into the City’s tree canopy loss as a result of utility line clearance work. As part of it investigation, staff examined data from a public M-NCPPC tree canopy assessment to evaluate the situation, however, they focused ONLY on the city’s residential neighborhoods. 

Next, the TLB commissioned a tree canopy assessment by SavATree Consulting Group.  Completed in April 2019, it influenced the TLB recommended the City Council enact legislation for the City to take control of the trimming and removal of trees on private residential property. 

,The original proposal stated most trees could not be removed, destroyed, or pruned greater than 20%  without a permit.  Phase Two of the ordinance scheme added burdensome fines, required replantings (or money payment to the City), violation notices and hearings.  The target of this plan was residents in detached homes and townhouses, as well as apartments and condominiums City-wide. 

First, it is important to understand where the tree canopy loss initially occurred. According to page 9 of the SavATree report, found on the City’s website, “These losses appear largely due to construction, in which land was cleared, and individual tree removal.  The latter could be due to landowner preferences, pests, disease, utility line work or other events.”

Since 2009, College Park has had tracts of land cleared for student housing/apartment developments and other commercial projects.  Additionally, we have had regular utility tree cutting which was the impetus for investigating the tree canopy loss.  Obviously, these are the causes driving the sudden large change in the tree canopy. The SavATree report in no way documents individual landowners as the source of the problem.

Second, one must ask why resident-owned property is being targeted to address the tree canopy loss?  The TLB’s College Park Urban Protection Recommendations, presented to council in April 2021, state that the largest opportunity for College Park to preserve and grow its tree canopy is on residentially zoned property.  These include the following zoning categories: R-80, R-55, R-35, R-20, R-T, R-30, R-30C, R-18, R-18C.  Unfortunately, this information presented by the TLB is skewed. 

The SavATree report on page 4 states: “The vast majority of existing tree canopy in the city falls within residential zoning, which is the dominant land zoning class in the city.”  An accompanying  chart on this page shows just over 2,500 acres, or 83% of College Park land tracts, carry a residential zoning designation. 

What this chart fails to break out is that 1,448 acres of the 2,500+ acres (roughly 58% of all residentially zoned property) belongs to the University of Maryland and to M-NCPPC, based on information obtained directly from the latter.  Only about 1,100 acres consists of actual residential properties. This is not the majority of land in the City. 

The TLB proposal does not affect student housing and its construction because those properties are zoned mixed use (MUI), not residential. It does not include the commercial development cited by the TLB as one of the major causes of the tree loss in the first place. 

 Another sad feature of the TLB proposal, largely unaddressed, is Right of Way (ROW) lands that comprise roughly 500 acres in the City.  ROW is the strip of land in front of your residence, controlled by the City, and used for utilities, sidewalks, street lights and trees, is an area, the TLB acknowledges, where tree canopy has been lost.  In this ROW, the City can freely plant trees, and can maintain responsibility for the trees it has planted. 

Consider that the SavATree report states: “Street trees provide an important contribution to the overall tree canopy”, but overlooks the opportunity for the City to directly address canopy loss through its own efforts and at its own expense.

TLB’s proposals allow the City to make the decisions about your trees on your property,  but does not propose that the City  take over the maintenance or costs associated with a tree which would be the case if the tree were planted in the ROW.   

The TLB’s proposals are not fair to College Park residents.  Focusing wholly upon the individual resident or homeowner, TLB does not offer a comprehensive plan or solutions involving all the stakeholders  and existing conditions for the improvement of the Tree Canopy.   Nor are other zoning uses regulated or impacted by the TLB’s proposals. 

 On April 20, 2021 the Council discussed the TLB’s tree. Many Councilmembers expressed the sentiment that even though residents will not like these new policies, they felt the TLB had worked hard for two years; consequently, they should move forward to pass this ordinance. 

The Council is proceeding with these proposals at the July Council sessions.  There is so much more work to be done to create a comprehensive and fair program to address tree canopy replenishment and no reason to focus solely on the residents with permits, fines, and citations.

At the July 13, 2021 City Council meeting, the TLB presented a three-part phased-in plan which is the outcome of a joint TLB and City Council subcommittee.  The outline of this plan will follow in the next installment of this examination of the impending tree canopy legislation.

Waiver sought for Revitalization Tax Credit Ordinance: The Whoops Ordinance

Don’t you wish the government (federal, state, county or city), would say, “Whoops, we made a mistake.  That tax amount you owe, never mind…we’ll just let you keep it.” This is essentially what is happening with the new undergraduate housing development, by the Gilbane Development Company.

Except this time, City staff members, contracted attorney, as well as your Mayor and Councilmembers, all missed the fact that this project, now known as Tempo, at 8430 Baltimore Ave., is not eligible for a revitalization tax credit per the City’s ordinance Chapter 175 “Taxation”, Article IV, “Revitalization Tax Credit”, Section §175-13.

 I could possibly see this getting by one, or two, or may be even three staff members, but not the City’s contracted attorney and City Manager, nor all eight Councilmembers and the Mayor.   How did that happen, especially after our last huge fiasco in 2017 when we were dubbed the “Dumbest Town in America”?

This Tuesday, March 9, at 7:30 pm,  there will be a Public Hearing for all to voice their opinions on the matter.  No doubt getting on Zoom again is the last thing you want to do after working all day, or while getting kids ready for bed, but saving taxpayers up to $571,020 in taxes will be worth the 30 minutes it takes.

HISTORY

In 2010, it was determined by the University and the City that College Park should become a Top 10 university town.  It was the vision of a handful of individuals that to do so the City must change the city’s character to attract developers, which would in turn attract restaurants and retail, and perhaps alumni dollars.

Chapter 175 “Taxation”, Article IV, “Revitalization Tax Credit”, Section §175-13 became an integral part of this plan.  Such a revitalization tax credit, used by hundreds of municipalities across America, would stimulate this growth.  In 2015, the construction of undergraduate housing was becoming increasingly popular, so much so,  that the City Council determined it best to terminate such tax credits to UG housing projects. 

Then, in January 2020, in steps the Gilbane Development Company.  The company’s lawyer argues that other projects had received this credit so they should too.  The City staff agree that the project is eligible, and then a whirlpool of mistaken perceptions, lies and perhaps even downright deception ensues pulling the City closer and closer to being sucked down the drain.

Any company would have reviewed, not just its plans, but the project’s budget prior to investing monies in architects and a detailed site plan, and approaching a bank or investors.  In other words, the Gilbane Company and its attorney, knew beforehand, they were asking for a tax credit for which they were not entitled.

And in the end, the City Council with the support of the Mayor, staff and attorney, voted unanimously to approve the credit on January 14, 2020. Such a vote was a legislative error which compounded the original staff error.  

At this Tuesday night’s meeting, the City Council will vote to introduce Ordinance 21-O-03 which would a waiver to the original ordinance, to correct the Council’s prior legislative error, thereby providing the Gilbane company with as much as a $571,020 tax credit over five years.

CONSEQUENCES:

Let me list some of the negative consequences of this blunder:

1.  It can set a precedent for future development projects, of any type, as well as projects already constructed to request a revitalization tax credit.

2.  City staff will continue to provide erroneous information unchecked.

3.  The Mayor and Councilmembers, perhaps following the staff’s lead, will not perform their due diligence thereby voting without a full understanding of the impacts of their vote.

4.  Use of the same attorney for multiple developments could lead to coordination of positions, such as students’ cost per bed.

On the positive side:

1.  This waiver allows Mayor and Council to provide a partial revitalization tax credit.

2.  This year’s budget could reflect funds for an independent zoning consultant to advise the City on current and upcoming projects.

3.  Mayor and Council could, upon their insistence, be provided with complete details, including financial reviews for developments, when considering any type of vote.

4.  Residents would also be provided the facts and could make their voices heard on issues.

You can make up your own mind.  Unlike many elected officials, I trust you to review the issues and make your own determination. 

To view the discussions regarding the Gilbane Construction Company’s request for an exemption to the County’s school facilities surcharge as well as the request for the City’s revitalization tax credit at the City Council worksession, January 7, 2020, click on the following link, if it is operational.  At this writing, it was not.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

“Attend” the City Council meeting. Click on the link below for this week’s Council meeting agenda, as well as to join the meeting, complete with instructions.

https://www.collegeparkmd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_03092021-1116

If you are unavailable to attend, write to the Mayor and Council at:  cpmc@collegeparkmd.gov.  Your email will be distributed to them.

Or write to your Councilmembers individually.  Click here to be taken to their email addresses.

https://www.collegeparkmd.gov/27/Mayor-Council

Bond Bill costs College Park Residents

While Chinese protestors took over the Hong Kong International Airport in a drive for more democracy, the College Park Mayor and Council laughed at its citizens’ efforts to exercise their democratic rights.

At last night’s City Council meeting, six out of eight Councilmembers rejected the appeals of more than 200 residents to put a 19+ million dollar bond bill to referendum in this fall’s elections. The bill combines monies for the soon-to-be constructed City Hall and the Duvall Field renovation.

Councilmembers Kate Kennedy, PJ Brennan, Monroe Dennis, Robert Day, John Rigg and Dustyn Kujawa, without compunction, elected to push forward a motion to borrow nearly 20 million dollars to be repaid over 30 years.  Although Mayor Wojahn was unable to vote on the issue, his stance was aligned with those six members. This vote will cost taxpayers $1 million in interest annually.

Councilmembers Fazlul Kabir and Denise Mitchell presented an alternate motion to postpone the vote until after the issue went to referendum. This motion was voted down.

A dozen residents, one presenting two petitions with 200 signatures, spoke to tax breaks for developers, the cost of artificial turf for Duvall Field, and democratic rights.  They were rewarded with nay votes and the sight of their democratic rights swirling down the drain.

City Council: Your Abusive Child

A funny thing happened during the city council meeting Tuesday: Councilmember Rigg spoke in proud tones that the Council discovered their power to take on a huge amount of debt.

This isn’t new information. Traditionally, the City has been very responsible with their funds. Frugal, even. Downright stingy, some might say. And residents have been perfectly fine with that approach. To my knowledge, no citizen has ever bemoaned the fact that the City had refrained from spending large amounts of money they didn’t actually have, on things they don’t really need.

But with the new City Hall project, it looks like that’s all about to change.

(Warning: Extended and somewhat-tortured metaphor follows)

The best way I can describe it, is like you gave your teenage son an old wallet you weren’t using, and they discovered a shiny new credit card tucked away in it. You had all-but-forgotten about the card, because you never use it, nor had any plan to. But now Junior has found it, and he’s going to the mall.

There are reasons you didn’t use the card. First, because you wanted it as a safety, to be kept in reserve in case of an emergency. Second, because you want to save it for really important purchases, like that security system for your house you know you’ll need someday, but keep telling yourself you won’t.

But what Junior needs, is a car. A roomier version of what he already has would be fine for his needs, but it just doesn’t have that “Wow!” factor to impress his friends. So he doesn’t want to just trade-in his Kia for a 4 Runner.

No, what Junior wants, is a Tesla.

The Tesla is shiny and new, turns heads when people see it, and it’s good for the environment, too! And their friend from college has offered to chip-in half to buy the car, so long as they can use it, too.

Great deal, right?

Except the Tesla is $350,000, where the $40,000 4 Runner would have gotten the job done just as well, and Junior wouldn’t have to share his (your) sweet ride with his somewhat-domineering older friends.

Oh well. Maybe when Junior comes back from his shopping spree, you can cut his card. Or vote him out of office, when you get the chance.

City Hall to cost taxpayers $20 million plus

They say talk is cheap, but not talk about College Park’s new City Hall.  The price of the upcoming project has jumped from $8 million in 2014 to $20 million plus as of last week.  In 2014 a desperate push was made to get this project on the books.  As I recall, a decision had to be made immediately because $400,000 in state money was to be had, and any delay meant the City would lose the funds.  So without doing their due diligence, the then City Council and Mayor Andrew Fellows, voted to situate the new City Hall at the current site despite the testimony of dozens of citizens who asked for consideration of the Stone Straw site in District 2.  When it became apparent that the City Council had no intention of considering the 17-acred site, those same citizens threw their support behind the Calvert School location.  But again, their voices were squelched, and the City Council voted to locate the new building on the current site.

Councilmember Fazlul Kabir, District 1, is working diligently to make, not only District 1 residents aware of the current spike in costs, but residents throughout the City.  Posted on his blog, Kabir Cares, is a comprehensive summary of the climbing expenses. He also includes a presentation created by the architects, Design Collective. http://www.kabircares.org/city-hall-project-cost-rises-by-8-million-in-8-months/

Read CPM’s previous post on the City Hall issue at the following link:  https://collegeparkmatters.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/do-we-need-a-new-city-hall-for-12-5-million/

These are your Tax Dollars!!  This Tuesday, April 23, let your voices be heard on this increasingly expensive project.  The City Council meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m.  Parking passes are available at the window. If you cannot make the meeting, please send an email to:  cpmc@collegeparkmd.gov by 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

Trash talk just a smokescreen?

The latest topic to heat up on Next Door is just trash talk. Seriously. An inordinate amount of time and energy has been spent discussing the City’s  latest proposal on bulk trash.  I’m not saying this trash talk is unimportant, but let’s be real. There is a simple answer to this.  Communicate with those offenders and fine them if necessary. The Public Works Office keeps track of anyone requesting a bulk trash pickup. So, done! Let’s not waste anymore of our time on an issue which can be so easily resolved.

With such a simple solution at hand,  it only makes sense this trash talk is a smokescreen or a red herring  to divert residents from the real issues: the fiscal year 2020 budget, four-year terms for mayor and council,  a  commitment to the university to spend some undetermined part of $30 million of taxpayers’ dollars on a new City Hall, just to name a few.

It’s spring again, and the FY2020 budget cycle is in full swing.  See below for a complete schedule. It’s worth noting that although Councilmembers and residents have asked for a later budget review process, this year’s is even earlier than usual. Per the City’s Director of Finance, Gary Fields, the proposed budget is scheduled to be distributed to our elected officials posted on the City website is March 8.  A limited number of hard copies will be available on Monday afternoon, March 11.

March 11 is also the second public forum regarding possible charter changes to the mayor and council’s  terms to take place at Davis Hall. The City’s newly appointed Election Commission is mandated to collect public comment and report back to the Mayor and Council on the public’s opinion on four-year terms as well as staggered terms.  (See Residents oppose Four-Year Terms)

As for the new City Hall, taxpayers and dare I say, our elected officials and staff, have no idea of the total bill facing us. Some may remember it started off at $8 million, then it  jumped to $12 million. Now, because the construction is a joint project with the University of Maryland, no one, at least connected with City, is clear on the total costs!

So don’t be fooled!   Don’t be taken in by trash talk! Look at the more important issues before us.

Proposed FY 2020 budget schedule:

Operating Budget worksheets distributed to departments December 20, 2018
Prepare the FY2020-FY2024 CIP (Staff input & document) January 2019
FY20 Budget preview discussion with Mayor & Council
*Review Cost/Fees Study
Tues. January 8, 2019
Mayor & Council requests for FY20 budget due Fri. January 25, 2019
Prepare cost estimates of Mayor & Council requests
Revenue projections & payroll info prepared by Finance
January – February 2019
Department budget worksheets due – returned to Finance Fri. January 25, 2019
Review of department operating budget submittals by City Manager and Finance Director with Dept. Director Mon. Jan 28 – Thursday February 7
(Start in January as completed)
FY20 Proposed Budget & CIP distributed to Mayor & Council and posted on City website Fri. March 8, 2019
Worksessions on the FY2020 Proposed Budget & CIP Saturday, March 23 @ 8 am
Saturday, March 30 @ 8 am
Additional worksessions if needed
FY20 Budget ordinance introduced – City Council Meeting
(includes changes from budget worksessions)
Tues. April 23
Advertisement in Washington Post for Public Hearings on:

  • FY20 Proposed Budget & CIP
  • Constant Yield Tax Rate  (if needed)
Thurs. April 25
Hold Public Hearings on (1) FY2020 Proposed Budget & CIP and (2) Constant yield tax rate (if needed) Tues. May 7
Worksession discussion of changes to the proposed budget as a result of the Public Hearings (if needed) Tuesday May 14 (if needed)
Adopt FY20 budget ordinance (including CIP) Tues. May 21
Effective date of FY20 Adopted Budget July 1, 2019

 

Supreme Court Hears Peace Cross Arguments

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the Bladensburg Peace Cross case (Case Nos. 17-1717 and 18-18).

Justice Sotomayor started off the questioning by noting the size of the memorial and the park, and comparing it to other similar parks around the country, some of which may have created additional memorials merely as a “pretext” to justify their own cross-shaped memorials.   MNCPPC attorney Neal Katyal noted that other memorials at the Peace Cross location went back as far as the early 1980s.

Justice Sotomayor also mentioned the possibilities of transferring ownership back to the American Legion, or moving the memorial off government-owned property.  These options were rejected by Katyal, because the memorial sits in the middle of a dangerous and busy intersection, and would most likely be destroyed if anyone actually tried to move it.

Justice Kagan asked if a similar memorial could be created today, either to honor WWI veterans, or as a memorial for other purposes. Justice Ginsburg added the possibility of a similar memorial honoring victims of other disasters.

Justice Ginsburg’s line of questioning brought up the concept of a “community standard” regarding such memorials. Justice Kagan questioned whether it would be acceptable for a community to put a cross up in front of a school or other public institution that had been the victim of a mass tragedy, such as a school shooting.

Justice Kavanaugh asked whether Jewish soldiers would be offended to be memorialized with a cross. Justice Sotomayor noted that even deeply religious Christians might be offended by secularizing the cross for use in such a memorial. Attorney Katyal responded, “I don’t think we let those objectors dictate that. If that were the rule, you’d be tearing down crosses at Arlington Cemetery and nationwide […] and sow religious divisions.”

Attorney Michael A. Carvin urged the court to extend the Town of Greece “coercion test” to the Peace Cross, noting that there is no entanglement with a church involved with the Peace Cross memorial. “It’s just a cross,” noted Justice Kagan, alluding to the fact that aside from its Latin-cross shape, there is no religious content whatsoever in the memorial itself.

There was some discussion about surrounding communities also putting up crosses of their own, and whether that would constitute proselytizing. “Suppose after this case Hyattsville puts up a cross, and College Park puts up a cross,” speculated Justice Kavanaugh.

Justice Alito later revisited the concept of a “community standard” regarding memorials, asking whether it would be acceptable for a community to erect a religious symbol as a memorial in the wake of a tragedy, if the community specifically requested such a symbol.

Justice Gorsuch kept coming back to the sticking point of where to draw the line between using a religious symbol in a secular memorial, and proselytizing. “The Lemon test is a dog’s breakfast,” he noted, referring to a long-existing 3-prong standard sometimes used by the court to determine if the use of a religious symbol is permissible.

Many of the attorneys noted that under the existing standards, the Peace Cross should be an “easy case” for the Supreme Court to decide. If the questions asked by the justices are any indication, they seem to be trying to come up with a better test for cases like this, where a government entity finds itself in ownership of a religiously-themed piece, either by intent, or by accident. There seems to be a leaning of opinion that the way a community decides to memorialize and honor its dead is best left up to that community, unless there is some form of physical or financial coercion involved.

Here’s hoping the justices come to a well-considered opinion.

You can listen to the oral argument here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/audio/2018/17-1717

All the relevant documents can be found here:
https://www.supremecourt.gov/docket/docketfiles/html/public/17-1717.html

You can read the transcript of the arguments here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2018/17-1717_0pl1.pdf

Residents oppose four-year terms

Do you lie awake at night wondering: What is the purpose of the College Park Electoral Commission?  Is it to check off a box? To give the Mayor and Council a buffer when they vote in favor of four-year terms?  Is it to promote a democratic process?  You probably don’t lose any sleep over this latest attempt to change the City charter, however, we must ask the questions.

On February 11, the Commission held its first public forum to allow residents to voice their thoughts on the viability of four-year terms and staggering those terms.  Surprisingly, only 10 long-time residents showed up on that miserable, rainy evening. Only seven of those spoke to the issues. ALL seven opposed four-year terms for varying reasons.

One resident noted that two-year terms have worked well since the City’s founding.  In fact,  in only a handful of instances was the incumbent voted out of office permitting the official to remain in office for a term or multiple terms.

Longer terms would be a strong disincentive for many to run, student or not. Living in such a transient area, it is implausible to insist on four-year terms and would discourage community engagement, said another resident.

I pointed out that a move to staggered terms would, without a doubt, be inefficient and not cost-effective.  City staff and the Board of Elections Supervisors would still be responsible for conducting elections every two years while the incumbents would only campaign and fund raise every four years.

The proposal for four-year terms was first brought up by my District 4 colleague, Dustyn Kujawa, when I was still on Council in 2017. Some of my colleagues complained of having to raise funds and knock on doors too frequently.  The same junior councilmember complained of the learning curve.  I could only shake my head in disbelief — in life there are usually learning curves.  This one can be reduced by participating in City committees, attending Council meetings and joining civic associations.

Following the public forum, the Commission held a meeting at which time newcomer to the City, Commissioner, Brooks Boliek, pointed out the comments coming in online were mostly in favor of  four-year terms.  Former Councilmember, John Krouse, requested that the verbatim transcripts of the comments be made available on the City’s website.  The Commission voted in favor of his motion.

A second and possibly third and fourth forum were discussed. Boliek was strongly opposed to holding more than two. Commissioner, Nora Eidelman, spoke in favor of more public engagement. The possibility of multiple forums was left open. The next forum is set for March 11, 7:30 – 9:30 p.m. at Davis Hall.

Special thanks to Oscar Gregory who taped the public forum. It is available at the link below.

https://www.facebook.com/OGregory4collegeparkmd/videos/253642775563272/

 

 

Six-story Storage facility coming to North College Park

What’s the point of participating in local government?  Once again, I had to ask myself that question after watching the deliberations of Prince George’s County District Council this week.  Despite the dogged efforts of four College Park, District 4 residents, one of them being me, a former D4 Councilmember,  the District Council (the County Council when it sits on zoning and development matters) denied the residents’ motion for reconsideration of the construction of the JDA storage facility in North College Park.

As you may recall, the District Council decided in October 2018 that a 6-story consolidated storage facility is appropriate for College Park’s main street.  On January 28, six District (County) Councilmembers voted to deny the residents’ an opportunity to have the case reconsidered.

Of College Park’s four Councilmembers, only D1 representative, Tom Dernoga, voted to allow the reconsideration while respectively D3 and At-Large representatives, Danielle Glaros and Calvin Hawkins, voted to deny. Mel Franklin, our other At-Large representative,  was absent.

The residents stated in their motion that the Council’s final vote in October was based on faulty land use policy analysis by the District Council’s attorney, Stan Brown. Briefly, the Council was never presented with the information that storage facilities are considered industrial use and not for areas zoned C-S-C (mixed use commercial). In fact, in 2008 – 2010, when my neighbors and I met repeatedly with the County’s planning staff as well as County Councilmember, Dernoga, we deliberately indicated in the plan that consolidated storage was not a permitted use.

In addition, the District Council’s final decision resulted from erroneous information  the proposed consolidated storage use is not subject to the building height limits, and that “the 2010 plan contemplated a storage facility use when it is expressly excluded storage facilities from the Corridor Infill building form configuration – i.e., principal building height measured in number of stories.”

During the meeting, District Councilmembers were reminded repeatedly by Brown and other staff members that to consider the case for reconsideration, it must fall in at least one of the four categories, surprise, fraud, inadvertence or mistake.  Despite these glaring mistakes, a majority of Councilmembers ruled against the citizens.

It is in moments like these that citizens, more often than not, throw in the towel and vow never to return to voice their concerns to those in local governance.  In other words, when the people are disregarded and politicians are sure they know better, the people give up.  They walk away; many never to return.  It is sad to say, perhaps that is just exactly what local governance wants.