Category Archives: Montgomery County Planning Board

Planning Board Violated Open Meetings Act

Like many institutions, the Montgomery County Planning Board has taken to holding meetings online during the pandemic. Incredibly, they chose not to give public notice about how members of the public could attend the meeting online.

Del. Al Carr (D-18) filed a complaint on November 1 alleging that the Development Review Committee (DRC) of the Montgomery County Planning Board repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to provide the public this information.

Unbelievably, the Planning Board Counsel, overseen by Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, defended this decision as acceptable because there was no physical location for the meetings:

Since March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DRC meetings have been held via Microsoft Teams. Someone wishing to join the Teams meeting would call the Information Counter (number provided on the website) and request to be added to the Teams meeting. There was no in-person option so no “location” was required.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board did not agree:

We believe the DRC construes the Act’s notice requirement too narrowly. The purpose of § 3-302(b)(2) is to ensure that members of the public who would like to attend a public body’s meeting have enough information to be able to do so.

An individual cannot attend a meeting without knowing where the meeting will take place. And while a virtual meeting may not happen in a physical location in the traditional sense, a person hoping to attend the meeting must still know where to go to observe the public body’s business. . .

The notices further indicated that “project applicants and their team” would receive information about “how to participate in the DRC meeting[s]” remotely. But the notices gave no indication of how an interested member of the public could obtain access information for the meeting. In its response, the DRC asserts that “[s]omeone wishing to join [a] Teams meeting would call the Information Counter” and “request to be added to the Teams meeting.” But the DRC fails to explain how an individual interested in attending such a meeting would even know to call “the Information Counter” or where to find that number, as such details are missing from the meeting notices.

Notice that the Board not only called out the Planning Board for failing to provide the information but also for their disingenuous claim that members of the public would somehow magically know to call the Information Center to be added to the meeting.

As with M-NCPPC’s complete ignoring of lobbying disclosure requirements and failure to address this ongoing violation despite their assurances, the Planning Board’s failure shows contempt for ethics laws and the public that they are supposed to serve.

In this case, the Planning Board finally altered its behavior in response to Del. Carr’s complaint But it should not take action by a member of the General Assembly for the Montgomery County Planning Board and M-NCPPC to comply with ethics laws.

And why didn’t the County Council, which has responsibility for appointing and overseeing the Planning Board, take action? Or do they condone this illegal nexus between the Board and the interests that they are supposed to regulate.

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M-NCPPC Violating Ethics Laws and its own Lobbying Policy

Maryland Public Ethics Law mandates that the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), a bi-county agency which includes the Montgomery and Prince George’s Planning Boards and other departments, require disclosure by lobbyists.

Towards that end, M-NCPPC adopted a policy on lobbying disclosure in 1983, which was amended in 1985. The policy requires lobbyists to register with M-NCPPC and to file a report annually with the Commission. Paid lobbyists should be reporting expenditures on meals, entertainment and gifts to Commissioners or their employees in addition to their compensation and monies spent on lobbying materials and research subject to certain regulations and thresholds.

The current Commission does none of this.

That means that lobbyists before the Planning Boards, which handle decisions with incredible monetary impact, aren’t registering or filing reports. A recent evaluation in by the Office of the General Counsel in response to a citizen complaint, reveals that even the old policy doesn’t fully comply with current law.

You can read M-NCPPC’s Office of the General Counsel’s recent report and review the 1985 policy below. Even their own counsel says that M-NCPPC is way out of compliance: “no lobbying registrations had apparently been filed in recent memory.”

Montgomery and Prince George’s need to wake up. Montgomery has always prided itself on being a squeaky-clean reform county, but its own Planning Board has failed to enforce any of its own or Maryland’s ethics requirements even though its decisions and recommendations can provide many millions in benefits to people invested and involved in property development.

This raises serious questions. Why hasn’t the Commission or either Planning Board done anything to enforce ethics regulations related to lobbying? Why has Planning Board Staff failed to carry out the Board’s adopted policy? Why didn’t the Office of the General Counsel make sure that M-NCPPC was in compliance up until now?

At the end of its report, the Office of the General Council states:

OGC recommends that the Commission promptly complete the process for a substantial overhaul of its lobbying regulations. The Commission’s executive team has made a commitment to revise and adopt new, clarifying lobbying regulations before the end of the 2021 calendar year, and to launch an energetic campaign of public education to introduce them after adoption.

None of that has happened.

The report was supposed to be discussed finally at the December 2021 M-NCPPC Board meeting but was yanked from the agenda at the last minute. In other words, M-NCPPC has already failed to honor its “commitment” to clean up this ethics mess by the end of 2021.

The Montgomery and Prince George’s County Councils, which fund and appoint each county’s Planning Board, need to investigate quickly and ensure that a new, cleaner regime arrives at the Planning Board’s new Wheaton headquarters with officials and planners willing to abide by and to enforce the law.

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Planning Board Chairman casey anderson calls county exec. Marc elrich’s idea “Dumb”

Though he doesn’t say his name, Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson disparaged County Executive Marc Elrich at the Board’s Thrive Montgomery meeting, saying it was a “dumb idea” for Elrich to suggest that the Purple Line be single tracked under Wisconsin Ave. to save money. Just to make it extra clear who he is thinking isn’t too bright, Anderson references an Elrich proposal from 2009.

Only the discussion doesn’t make clear that the idea now is simply to single track under Wisconsin Ave.–a distance of 900 feet–to save money rather than all the way from Bethesda to around Connecticut Ave. as in the idea from over a decade ago. [Note: The Purple Line was originally planned as entirely single track.]

No discussion of the merits of the idea occurs. Nor does the Planning Board Chairman suggest a means to fund this expensive project. Anderson’s comments would likely have been even worse if a planning board staffer had not cut him off in the midst of another negative comment.

When asked for comment, Chairman Anderson said:

Well, I said it, and if I had it to do over again I might say it’s a bad idea, or even a terrible idea, but whatever word is used to describe it the fact is that It was suggested in 2009 and rejected for reasons that were pretty obvious at the time and I don’t think it has improved with age.

Not exactly an apology. Even worse, it reiterates the false claim that this is the same as the 2009 proposal. It’s not. The 2009 proposal planned for single-tracking over a much longer distance, so I queried: “Except that Elrich’s proposal in 2009 had a single track to CT—not just under Wisconsin—so that’s not true, right?” Anderson texted back:

It’s pretty obvious that it creates the same problem – single tracking limits the ability to improve frequency of service because it limits the number of trains you can run. In places where it’s been tried the result has been to come back later and make expensive fixes to add back the second track.

Except that what’s more far obvious is that single-tracking over a very short distance at the end of the line could well have quite different effects than doing the same over a much longer distance. It’s a very strong, unsupported assumption in service to his preferences. More to the point, repeatedly stating that the two proposals are the same is not playing straight with the public.

Around the same time as I heard back from Anderson, I also received a comment from County Executive Elrich:

Not quite sure what Casey’s referring to but when it was first suggested, the single track went all the way to the country club. We’re talking about pulling into and out of the station on a single track. It’s nine hundred feet – a fraction of the distance to the country club. And the trains have to switch tracks over there any way because the train entering on the westbound track has to leave on the eastbound track.

At the headway’s the system uses, there’s no way that two trains would conflict and there would be no bottleneck or degradation in service. It would save $50 million that could be spent on other important things. And without a second track you get a nice wide path.

Of course, the state would have to study it, I can’t mandate it, so we’ll see if it works. And if it does, why would a sane person say no. In the meantime his policies of developer giveaways is wrecking our ability to build the capital projects we need. Which schools, libraries, or public facilities should we kill to spend $50 million on a 500 ft tunnel if you can solve the problem and get the project done faster for far less cost. I’m trying to get it done quickly, without damaging our budget.

I don’t think many would contest that the two-track tunnel would be better. The question that Elrich raises is whether it’s worth studying the alternative in light of other pressing needs demanding the county’s scarce capital dollars. He also points out, correctly, that we’d get a much better bike path and trail through the tunnel.

Bottom Line: The public contempt by the Planning Board Chairman for an idea proposed by the County Executive to deal with the decline in projected capital funds is irresponsible and inappropriate for an official chairing a public meeting. Indeed, it’s the sort of remark that the Council reacted to sharply when Elrich said something similarly tactless–and, unlike Elrich, Anderson knew he was being taped.

What’s even worse, however, is intentionally misleading the public into believing that Elrich’s current proposal for single tracking just under Wisconsin had been studied when he could have simply said that he didn’t think it is a good idea. The Planning Board Chair should not misrepresent facts. It undermines the public trust.

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Lucrative Waiver to Chevy Chase Land Company Scrutinized

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Del. Al Carr (D-18) on an issue that the Planning Board is taking up today.

The Montgomery County Council approved the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan in 2013 after a lengthy process of gathering public input.

The plan contains environmental provisions requiring developers to restore the local tree canopy which has been ravaged over the years by road construction, development, Pepco, and clear cutting for the Purple Line. It requires that utility wires be buried allowing for the planting of large overstory trees. A healthy tree canopy is vital to protecting water quality in Rock Creek and its tributaries.

Unfortunately, the Montgomery County Planning Board quietly waived these environmental provisions for the well-connected developer in 2017. The developer successfully lobbied to be released from the requirement to bury the wires on the east side of Connecticut Ave. As a result, the developer is not planting tall overstory street trees on Connecticut Ave and Manor Rd to maximize the restoration of the tree canopy.

In the 2017 staff report, planning staff used the following rationale when recommending the waiver: “Although undergrounding of utilities is typically required for site plan applications in Chevy Chase  Lake Sector Plan area, this application is not required to do so because the electrical utilities along the property frontage are high-voltage transmission lines that are not routinely buried.”

However the exact same “high-voltage transmission line” was recently buried immediately to the south where the purple line bridge will cross Connecticut Ave. Identical lines are routinely being buried in the county including in Silver Spring (Linden to Sligo project) and in White Flint (new substation).

There is a long-shot opportunity to correct this mistake when that same developer returns to the Planning Board on July 23rd for amendments to their plan. The Planning Board has the opportunity at that meeting to mandate that the wires be buried at the developer’s expense and that tall overstory trees be planted where possible along the site frontage on Connecticut Ave and Manor Rd.

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