Tag Archives: Hans Riemer

Chevy Chase Library Redevelopment. If It’s a Good Idea, No Need to Mislead.

In a recent email appeal on the proposed Chevy Chase Library redevelopment, the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) wrote:

This is an opportunity to model the smart growth future of Montgomery County by mixing affordable housing and a public facility in one location near transit, services, amenities, and jobs. . . . With your support, we can win more housing and more affordable housing in a community that has been kept out of reach for too many for too long.

The CSG email gave the strong impression that this is a unique affordable housing opportunity. But there is currently no guarantee that the project on this site would consist of more than the minimum required moderately priced dwelling units (MPDUs) . Most units would be market rate housing, which in this area likely means million-dollar condos or high-end rentals. In other words, you could apply this same language to Lionsgate in Bethesda or any development.

The sign-on letter to the county exaggerates the case even more:

We believe this is an opportunity to model the future of Montgomery County by mixing housing and a public facility in one location near transit, services, amenities, and jobs. This project is key to meeting the county’s goals to achieve racial equity and social justice, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

This is an area that was kept out of reach for people of color through redlining, restrictive covenants, and other public and private policies. The government must take intentional steps to reverse this history. . . . Montgomery County needs more projects like this to break down its racial and socioeconomic east-west divide and achieve housing justice.

Language like this is almost included routinely in progressive advocacy documents. In many ways, it is more a statement of faith, like reciting the catechism, than anything else. At the same time, million-dollar condos or pricey rentals in this one project just aren’t the “key” to “racial equity and social justice” or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a lot for one modest building project to carry. Even the MPDUs are moderate, not low-income, housing.

The funny thing is that, on balance, I think this project is probably a good idea. Notwithstanding its exclusion from the recently adopted Master Plan, it is near the Purple Line stop and other areas around it that are being built up. Hundreds of units are currently being delivered right up the avenue at Chevy Chase Lake, and hundreds more are proposed. But it’s not necessary to so massively oversell this as a social justice, affordable housing project to make that case.

Making the Project Work

The site currently consists of a large area of surface parking. Is there a better use for that land? Probably yes. Must parking still be a consideration? Yes. To make the project truly successful, the redeveloped library will need onsite parking.

CSG opposes parking but most people in the surrounding suburban neighborhoods cannot walk to this or any other library. You can’t rebuild it and make it impossible for most of the community to access it. Many elderly and disabled patrons who can no longer park next to the redeveloped Silver Spring Library now use this library, and it’d be a shame to displace them again. The parking lots across the street in Silver Spring are too far for those with serious mobility issues.

Getting Our Money’s Worth

Finally, the county needs to come to the table with a more knowledgeable approach so it can leverage its assets and advocate properly for its citizens. Councilmember Will Jawando has repeatedly made this excellent point. We rely far too much on analyses produced by the developer in our own assessments:

The voting on tax abatements for projects at Metro stations revealed this all too clearly. At the committee level, Jawando’s proposal to require deeper levels of affordability was voted down flat as economically unfeasible by Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Andrew Friedson. When voted on at the full council, the same amendment was adopted unanimously. As if “miraculously”, the previously impossible became possible.

If we are better informed, we can negotiate hard and get better value out of these deals, including a higher share of affordable housing. It’s not just the right thing to do. The government neglects its fiduciary responsibility if it doesn’t get maximal value for people of the county when negotiating these projects.

Conclusion

The redevelopment of Chevy Chase Library with housing is potentially a very good project and the county should work to make sure that we, the citizens of Montgomery County, get the most public value. As the idea moves forward, it should continue to pursue a vision that serves the whole community, and adds more affordable units.

There’s no need for CSG to engage in over-the-top hype as the county moves forward with exploring what was, after all, the county government’s own idea. This redevelopment project may well prove worthwhile even if it doesn’t solve all social and racial inequities, and stop climate change.

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Part II: Thrive’s Failure on Affordable Housing

Thrive Montgomery 2050 fails to protect affordable housing. Ironically, this is being done in the name of building more affordable housing. Well, sort of. Affordable housing means housing for those at the lowest income levels, either regulated by the county or naturally occurring. Thrive has noticeably evolved away from focusing on “affordable” to “attainable”, with the latter meaning more units but not necessarily an increase in affordable units.

Thrive doesn’t worry about protecting existing affordable places to live. The idea is that tearing down currently affordable buildings isn’t a problem because they will be replaced by new buildings that will contain a greater number of affordable units.

There are major problems with this logic. For a start, the new buildings don’t necessarily have to contain more affordable units. In Bethesda, Brown/Aldon is tearing down 477 naturally occurring affordable apartments on Battery Lane. The new set of buildings, planned over the next 15 years, will include 1530 new units but only 306 MPDUs (moderately priced dwelling units). As a result, the project will cause a net loss of 171 affordable units—and that’s generously counting the MPDUs which are geared towards those earning 60-80% of area median income, not the lowest income.

So we’ll experience a net loss in affordable housing—in the middle of an area where everyone agrees we could use more of it. Under this logic, often we will be destroying existing naturally occurring affordable units for very little or no gain in regulated affordable units, and an increased number of more expensive units.

Thrive proponents even want to pay developers with our tax dollars to tear down existing buildings and build denser in the name of affordable housing. If there is sufficient demand, why do we need to bribe them to build it? And why should we financially aid the destruction of existing affordable housing?

Bribing developers to do something the market is telling us doesn’t make sense is a waste of money. It is a one-off “solution” that provides no guarantee that more housing, and especially affordable housing, will follow. Yet that won’t prevent councilmembers who would chuck our taxes away from pointing to the building as a great new accomplishment.

The most inequitable part of all this, however, is the total lack of consideration for the current residents of existing affordable housing. Renters get thrown out of their homes, so the new building can be built. But finding new affordable housing in desirable locations is difficult, and many will experience major dislocation and need to move much further away. In some cases, the County will literally be paying builders to do projects that will throw low-income residents out in the name of affordable housing.

Thrive should be modified to protect existing affordable housing. Let’s encourage new building, including with MPDUs, in areas without it. We shouldn’t cannibalize our existing stock of affordable housing and dislocate people in this chimera of progress.

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Why Thrive Dropped the Ball on Equity

Thrive 2050 has many words about equity. So why didn’t the Office of Legislative Oversight’s (OLO) racial equity and social justice (RESJ) review end up giving it a gold star?

Thrive’s staunchest advocates still can’t believe it. Yesterday’s post outlined how they utterly reject the claims made in the RESJ review. Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Planning Department Director Gwen Wright doubled down on their assertations that Thrive addressed RESJ extremely well in their lengthy response.

But it turns out that these problems with Thrive were not a February surprise but were flagged last August in a memo to Councilmember Hans Riemer by the Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice (ORESJ), an executive agency. Riemer chairs the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee which was in the midst of work sessions on Thrive. So what happened? Where did Thrive go awry?

Both the Council and the Executive have offices to do RESJ analyses. How does the Planning Department do the same? Planning staff in June 2020 outlined an action plan to incorporate RESJ into Master and Functional Plans that was approved by the Planning Board.

But, as far as I can tell, Planning did not follow either the Council or the Executive’s model and identify a staffer or establish an office with the requisite skills. Planning’s website highlights their equity plans going forward, including for Thrive 2050 (emphasis added):

Montgomery Planning is developing an Equity Agenda for Planning to systemically dismantle the institutional racism that exists in our work and prevent it in the future. Developing an Equity Agenda for Planning is ongoing and will require constant attention to the influence of institutional racism on all planning and zoning processes. We’ve begun working on this through some recent master plans and studies and through Thrive Montgomery 2050, the update to the county’s General Plan. . . .

It will take some time to fully develop a new methodology and approach for equity in the planning process, but we cannot delay applying an equity lens to our work.

But nearly two years after approving the action plan, there is no formalized framework, mechanism or staff to ensure that both outreach and Thrive were done in line with intentional RESJ practices. Nor is there evidence that Planning reached out to OLO or ORESJ for their expertise despite the warning back in August.

Instead, the Planning Board has relied on its own interpretation of what constituted an “equity lens”. There was no separate in-house or independent analysis along the lines of what either the Council or the Executive requires.

Many words about equity does not mean that the process was inclusive or that the substance meaningfully addresses the issue. While Anderson and Wright vehemently defend their work product, they would be in a better position to do so if they had such an analysis. Instead of deciding that they know what constitutes equity, they would have an informed and impartial analysis to buttress their claims that they had done this the right way and addressed all RESJ issues.

In short, this appears to have been handled sloppily, much like the Planning Board’s repeated ethics problems. As I explained yesterday, I think that at least part of this stems from a firm urbanist belief that their ideas will assure racial and economic equity. This makes it all too easy for the Planning Board to misguidedly define their own preferences as “equity”.

But hewing to a particular school of thought and relying on one’s own judgment of what constitutes equity is not the same as genuine outreach to people in the community, let alone communities of color and low-income residents, or incorporation of their ideas and desires into the plan.

That Thrive reflects the nexus of suppositions by Anderson, Wright, Riemer—all very successful Whites—and outside support groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth—whatever their intentions—so perfectly indicates that the process and the result were more performative than inclusive.

Many may question the entire enterprise of RESJ reports and such an intense focus on issues related to it. But the centrality of claims regarding equity to arguments made by Thrive’s advocates only make Planning’s failure more stunning and acute.

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Riemer Flip Flops on Liquor Control

Calling the laws governing the sale of liquor in Montgomery “antiquated and byzantine,” Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) came out in favor of abolishing the county liquor monopoly in an email blast sent out yesterday by his campaign for county executive.

This is quite a change.

Over three terms on the County Council, he has opposed doing away with the monopoly. The Nighttime Economy Task Force, which Councilmember Riemer chaired in 2013 studiously stayed away from recommending its abolition even though it was the obvious way to stimulate restaurant growth and nightlife.

Two years later in 2015, Riemer wrote here on Seventh State: “I strongly believe our county alcohol regime holds back the vibrancy of our restaurant and nightlife economy and negatively impacts the choices residents get in stores.” But even as he recognized its faults, he opposed ending the monopoly.

Instead, he championed an unworkable bill that would have allowed businesses to buy directly “boutique brands” that weren’t among the 4,500 carried by the then-Department of Liquor Control (DLC). Except that distributors were never going to run nearly empty trucks to stores or restaurants to deliver a case or two of their more obscure brands.

Meanwhile, Riemer worked to kill a bill sponsored by Del. Bill Frick (D-16) to allow county voters to decide whether to retain the monopoly. Even after the fiasco surrounding deliveries to bars and restaurants right before New Year’s just a couple of months later, Riemer stuck to his position against abolition.

Now, after three terms on the Council, Riemer has come out against the monopoly as part of his campaign for county executive.

He even argues that he is somehow more radical than David Blair because:

David Blair, on the other hand, also wants to keep the County in the liquor business. Rather than just getting out, Blair wants the County operations to compete with the private sector – creating a gigantic mess that will cost taxpayers dearly while needlessly subjecting employees to conditions that would be extremely stressful and demoralizing.

Keeping the county in the liquor business would increase competition, which is the entire point of abolishing the monopoly, while simply shutting it down as Riemer proposes would decrease it. The county liquor business might not survive this competition, but they are already established and positioned to give it a go. It’s hard to imagine that this would be more “stressful and demoralizing” than being fired, as Riemer suggests.

But the real story remains that Riemer has upended his position after twelve years on the Council as part of campaign for higher office.

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Thriving Together

The Tweeters have been active since the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) condemned me. I’ve been threatened with physical violence and another prominent smart growth blogger says I “must be stopped.” Twitter suspended the account of the person who threatened me.

While not pleasant, a friend with good sense reminded me to “ignore the trolls” and that the “Twitter echo chamber is not representative of the real world.” The bile seemed to go far beyond anger at my criticizing a lobbyist for not filing required reports.

What I rapidly learned is that my series of posts about problematic ethics at the Planning Board and lobbying raised the ire of advocates for Thrive 2050 —the county’s general plan that the County Council is set to consider. Apparently, similar treatment has been meted out to others deemed to be critics, though I have literally not written a word on Thrive prior to today.

Well, they got me much more interested. I have not followed the Thrive debate closely. Like many, I’ve been focused on my job and getting through the pandemic, so I stopped blogging completely. Over the weekend, I’ve started to gain a quick education.

The key takeaway so far is that new County Council President Gabe Albornoz and Vice President Evan Glass have their work cut out for them. The intense divisions and acrimony around Thrive mirror the ugly mood and tenor of debate in the country. Confidence isn’t increased by the Planning Board’s failure to register lobbyists, violations of the open meetings law and abuse of the consent calendar to constrain public input on other matters.

The good news is that I cannot think of two people more suited to address it. While I sometimes disagree with them strongly, you won’t find two more fundamentally even-keeled public officials than Councilmembers Albornoz and Glass. As a result, I remain optimistic that they can lead the county to a document that brings people together. Put another way, I hope they can move the process forward to a conclusion but in a way that makes residents feel included and heard.

That doesn’t mean “paralysis by analysis”—the county’s unfortunate moniker for its tendency to study matters into eternity—but it does mean heading towards the end in the right way. How can that be accomplished?

It’s an unfortunate truth of public policy that many people only start to pay greater attention once matters come to a head. (Consider me Exhibit A in this case.) This is especially true because the key parts of the process took place during the pandemic and the 2020 election. So many people still have a lot of questions they would like answered, and many would like to know how the comments they have already provided will be incorporated.

Thrive proponents may be technically correct that the document itself changes nothing with respect to zoning, but it is strongly linked to potential major zoning changes (zoning text amendments) that have also been proposed and are already under discussion. So saying it has no impact on zoning comes across, intentionally or not, as too clever and insincere.

It’s especially important because the Planning Board, led by Casey Anderson, removed certain references to the importance of the Master Planning process. The document is now written to pre-determine outcomes, while simultaneously claiming not to have decided anything. Put another way, we are now being told that it is too early to know its impact on zoning but, once Thrive is passed, it will be too late because “Thrive says . . .”

People want to know what Thrive means for them—how will it affect their home and their neighborhood? What about nearby areas? People care a lot about how changes impact their family and their largest investment or their rent. Using plain language and including specific metrics would go a long way to help residents better understand outcomes Thrive expects to realistically achieve,

In my time as mayor and other leadership positions, I’ve found that listening is far more important than talking. I’m not saying it’s easy or my natural strength, but I work on it. People like to be heard. They also justifiably loathe performative “consultations” where leaders claim to want input, but the outcome has been pre-determined. Councilmembers must incorporate comments from the very broad range of opinion thoughtfully with an open mind.

Which brings me to why this effort is needed to get the process back on track. Many in the community believe that the process has been highly structured to produce a particular outcome supported by a nexus between the Planning Board Chair, activist/business groups like CSG, and certain councilmembers.

The Planning Board staff presented a draft that was amended “in a very surgical way” at the behest of Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson according to insiders. While avowedly done in response to community comment, for example, it’s hard to imagine that this very pro-environment county demanded the excision of Thrive’s specific environmental chapter. Did anyone actually request this? The changes reflect exactly what one would imagine Casey Anderson preferred.

The Thrive appendix outlining planned outreach states:

Blog and vlog: To get involvement from and perspectives of different people in the community — residents, community leaders, business leaders, county officials — we’ll ask different people to be involved in writing or being interviewed for Thrive Montgomery stories to share on the blog.

But the blog is uniformly supportive of Thrive and the concepts behind it. If you do a search for “Thrive” in the blog, almost all of the posts are written by Casey Anderson or other people at the Planning Board. This is what an orchestrated campaign looks like–not an effort to involve diverse voices and different perspectives.

The three-member Council Committee which then reviewed Thrive for the Council is chaired by Hans Riemer, a very good friend and close ally of Casey Anderson. People happier with the original staff document, such as the Civic Federation, understandably see the consultation process as set up to emphasize supporters and limit input from people who might have a contrasting vision.

Former Council President and powerful PHED Committee Chair Riemer’s statement that CSG, a regional organization fiscally sponsored by an out-of-state group with substantial contributions by developers, has been “chairing the conversation” confirms their fears.

Anderson, Riemer and CSG are understandably happy with a document which utterly mirrors their views. That doesn’t make it a bad document in terms of public policy per se, or any of their policy preferences “wrong,” and it certainly doesn’t make any of them remotely bad people. It’s a fine example of structuring a political process to achieve one’s preferred outcome. But it doesn’t provide for an open, transparent, and inclusive process that achieves buy-in from the community.

Finally, as the Council goes through the document, they should go through section by section with both the PHED version and the original Planning Staff version on hand. That will allow the Council to better discuss whether they agree with the changes. Again, they need to discuss how the feedback they’ve received that differs from recommendations is considered and incorporated. This sort of deliberative work session process, conducted in public, will allow for an open process that permits a variety of issues and concerns to be discussed and considered.

There shouldn’t be a complete restart. We need to answer questions, to consult meaningfully, and then the Council can make the decisions we elected them to do. Not everyone will be happy with their decisions, but they’ll likely feel much more included and respected if they are genuinely heard and the document reflects the diverse views in the county.

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Riemer vs Elrich on Solar in the Ag Reserve

By Adam Pagnucco.

The extent to which solar panels should be allowed in the agricultural reserve was a big issue this week. Council Member Hans Riemer, one of the lead sponsors of legislation to do so, and County Executive Marc Elrich, who favors less capacity than Riemer, both issued statements this week which we reprint below. For background, you can refer to Bethesda Beat’s account of the county council’s decision on the issue, my column on its context and Delegate Kumar Barve’s letter to the council about the legislation.

First, let’s consider what Riemer had to say in his blast email of February 24.

*****

Why I Voted No

When I introduced the “farm + solar” zoning change with Council President Tom Hucker back in January 2020, my goal was to build a cornerstone of Montgomery County’s climate action policy.

By allowing less than 2% of the land in the County zoned “Agricultural Reserve” (which is itself one-third of all land in the County) to be used for privately funded community solar projects, the proposal would have generated enough clean energy to power more than 50,000 homes, while continuing agricultural practices on that land.

Regrettably, with opposition fueled by the County Executive, a majority of Councilmembers adopted two amendments to ZTA 20-01 that are so restrictive that the proposal may result in very little if any solar.

As a result, I voted “no,” because I am concerned that rather than a small step forward for Montgomery County, it may be a large step backward for Maryland. Consider these words from Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which along with the Sierra Club and Poolesville Green strongly supported the original plan:

Clean energy has to go somewhere. If liberal Montgomery County can’t reach a sensible compromise policy, imagine the push back from Republican county and state elected leaders who think climate change is a hoax anyway.

We should be leading. Our county has adopted climate goals. We declared a “climate emergency.” We have conducted studies on how to reduce our carbon footprint. At the end of the day though, the only way to make a difference is to make policy changes, and changes will require disruption to the status quo.

Yes, many incumbent farmers and preservationists were opposed, due to impacts on their business models (shifting from commodity crops to agrivoltaics, solar grazing, or pollinator-friendly habitats on that portion of land) or a perceived threat that allowing solar is a step to allowing residential or other development (just a fear, not a reality).

There are reasonable questions about how we transition to a clean energy economy. One idea I offered was to use tax revenue from solar arrays to support additional agricultural preservation, grants to help small farmers purchase or lease land, and funds to support agrivoltaic and solar grazing. Nevertheless, under this plan, farming would continue, the Reserve would endure. Frankly not much would seem all that different but we would have made a huge impact on our carbon emissions.

Other choices that we have before us are far more costly, either financially to taxpayers or to businesses or homeowners. This is one of a very few ideas that does not actually require County funds — in fact it would generate millions in new county revenue that could be devoted to the climate agenda while creating new clean energy and solar grazing jobs.

Some of the important points to remember about this proposal include:

  1. Solar fields would have been limited each to 2MW in power generation, about 10-15 acres per property maximum (in contrast to portrayals of “industrial solar”)
  2. Total acreage allowed would have been limited to 1,800 out of the 100,000+ acre reserve, which itself is one-third of all land in the County
  3. Grazing sheep on pollinator-friendly plants beneath the arrays was encouraged and could have been incentivized with new tax revenue from the solar arrays
  4. Solar grazing and agrivoltaics would increase local food production in the Reserve — less than 1% of the land in the Agricultural Reserve today is farmed for fruits and vegetables destined for local farmers markets
  5. Rooftop and parking lot solar, while important, is significantly more expensive than ground-mounted or terrestrial solar fields, which is why you don’t see enough of it
  6. There is nothing more important to saving the climate than creating cheap clean energy
  7. By only allowing “community solar” installations on the land, energy companies taking advantage of the program would be required to offer discounted energy subscriptions to low income residents

The Council majority acknowledged that they are not sure if their proposal will result in new solar projects and that we should return to the topic in two years to evaluate progress.

In that respect, while I am disappointed in the final vote, I am also grateful that we have now opened up the possibility of farms providing community solar (which was previously entirely prohibited; now is mostly prohibited) and I am committed to growing that potential in the future as a necessary public benefit from our Agricultural Reserve.

In the meantime, while it is clear that the original proposal has overwhelming support from voters, we need to build grassroots support, and in particular, we need to educate residents about the primacy of clean energy and the social justice value of community solar.

To be continued.

Sincerely,
Hans

*****

Now let’s consider Elrich’s statement, issued on February 25.

*****

Dear Friends:

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday voted to adopt changes to the County zoning code that will provide opportunities for locating solar collection systems in the Agricultural Reserve. I extend my thanks to the seven Councilmembers who found common ground that allows for community solar projects while protecting our agricultural resources.

Zoning Text Amendment 20-01 strikes the right balance between the need for renewable energy and the equally important need to protect the Agricultural Reserve’s unique and vital contributions to local food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.

The new standards allow solar collection systems generating up to two megawatts of power as a conditional use on the lesser productive soils in the Ag Reserve. Other provisions protect streams, wetlands, steep slopes greater than 15 percent and forests.

In addition, the areas under the arrays must be used for farming or agricultural purposes. Examples include pollinator-friendly designation, agrivoltaic plantings or crops suitable for grazing farm animals. Another significant change affects property owners who install smaller solar systems to serve their individual energy needs, increasing the amount of on-site energy they can produce from 120 to 200 percent.

The County Council also mandated a formal review process to assess the outcomes of these changes in two years. This will give us the opportunity to observe whether and how this experiment will work, especially regarding the emerging field of agrivoltaics, which focuses on the co-development of land for both solar power and agriculture.

In the meantime, my administration continues to prioritize increased solar energy production in innovative ways. For example, we are currently planning the installation of a six-megawatt array on the County-owned site of an old landfill. We also are looking at ways to incentivize solar projects on existing parking lots and buildings elsewhere throughout the County. These types of projects are essential to our efforts to address climate change through clean energy solutions.

I deeply appreciate the work of all those involved in this year-long review, most especially members of, and advocates for, the farming community and Executive Department staff members. The Ag Reserve, established by prescient County leaders more than 40 years ago, is recognized as a national model of farmland and open space preservation. Its importance and significance grow with each passing year as we witness the effects of climate change on our food and water supplies. The legislation adopted by County Council embodies the need for protecting this resource while allowing us to see whether agriculture and solar systems can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way in Montgomery County.

Marc Elrich
County Executive

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Riemer Attacks the Police Union

By Adam Pagnucco.

Several months ago, Council Member Hans Riemer requested that the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) research the county’s administration of its collective bargaining agreements with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 (FOP). OLO’s report was a stunner, revealing that the county’s sloppiness resulted in different sets of collective bargaining agreements being regarded as definitive by the two parties and that the agreements contained benefit levels exceeding maximums set in law. When OLO briefed the council on the report on Tuesday, multiple council members expressed concerns about the issue. But Riemer outdid them all with a brutal attack on the police union.

A bit of background. When Riemer was first elected to the council in 2010, he was supported by all three county employee unions (MCGEO, the Fire Fighters and the FOP) as well as the two largest MCPS unions (MCEA and SEIU Local 500). While the MCPS unions continued to endorse him, none of the county employee unions endorsed him in his next two reelection campaigns.

Over the years, Riemer’s relationship with the county employee unions has gradually deteriorated. He’s not alone – majorities of the county council voted to abrogate one or more of their collective bargaining agreements in 2016, 2019 and 2020. But the intensity of union sentiment has focused more on Riemer than his colleagues, culminating with a picket of Riemer’s home last May.

The FOP is particularly incensed with Riemer owing partly to his actions over the past two years. During the current term, Riemer has lead-sponsored three bills disliked or outright despised by the union, including legislation to establish a police advisory commission, reduce the union’s collective bargaining rights and prohibit school resource officers. The OLO report on collective bargaining, which was requested by Riemer, prompted a furious response from the FOP. The end result was that when the council first discussed the OLO report in public, Riemer held nothing back.

I may have a comment about the merits of Riemer’s criticisms in a future column, but for now let’s hear what he had to say. The following is a transcription of his remarks at the council briefing on February 2.

Council Member Hans Riemer: I think what you see here is the result of an organization, which is our police department, frankly being under siege for 25 years from a hyper-aggressive legal adversary that uses every means at its disposal to gain control. And I think it’s very reasonable to separate our strong support for our officers who need our support. They need to know that we are there for them, we will equip them, we will train them, we will fund their salaries – at the same time, not having a dynamic where the legal advocacy of that organization takes over the department, which I think has unfortunately happened in so many different ways.

And if you saw the letter to the editor from the FOP to the Bethesda Beat over the weekend, I thought it was shocking. You know, they actually said nowhere in county collective bargaining law does it say that a third party or the county council need to be able to decipher all collective bargaining documents. Put yourself in a mindset to be able to write those words, that the public has no right to know or need to know what is in our governing documents. That is the mindset that we are dealing with. And it is a huge problem.

So we need to tackle the many consequences of this in discipline, we see this playing out, officers committing egregious offenses, sitting on payroll for year after year after year, and there’s legislation that Council Member Rice and I, co-sponsored by Council Member Jawando, Council Member Navarro, have introduced that will address a lot of the root causes of these problems. And I would really like the county council public safety chair and committee to review that legislation. It’s been before the council for months. It has not had a meeting. We need to review that legislation and have a discussion about it. The fact that the use of force policy is now being bargained despite our clear intention is problematic.

*****

Note: That last sentence from Riemer refers to legislation passed by the council last August that codified a use of force policy for the county police department. Both Riemer and Council Member Will Jawando claimed that it is now being bargained despite its presence in county law, which supersedes county collective bargaining agreements.

(Disclosure: I was Riemer’s Chief of Staff from 2010 through 2014. I have worked for labor unions but have never worked for the FOP.)

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Corporate MoCo Council Adopts Supply-Side Economics

The Montgomery County Council talks a good game when it comes to progressive politics, but their policy choices are straight out of the corporate conservative Republican playbook.

Consider their most recent action to lower impact fees that pay for public services, like schools, on development.

Heeding calls by Empower Montgomery (which advertised being founded by David Blair until he ran for county executive), the Council is eliminating moratoria on development required by law due to the county’s failure to provide public services needed for existing residents in these areas. The Council didn’t solve the problem providing the public services needed to meet legal requirements but by simply eliminating the moratoria.

In the past, councilmembers have argued against moratoria on the grounds that the impact fees from new development are vital to providing these services. No one has trumpeted this line more strongly than the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee Chair Hans Riemer.

In an October email blast, Riemer justified the Council’s last corporate welfare giveaway (eliminating real estate developments on WMATA property from property taxes for 15 years) by pointing to the impact fees they will generate:

These projects generate more construction jobs and more one-time revenue for the County, such as impact tax revenue that can be used to add school and transportation capacity.

Now, the Council has voted substantial cuts to the impact fees that they touted as the reason to eliminate the moratoria and pass the property tax giveaway for developers. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but this nevertheless remains an impressive feat of quick dumping down the memory hole.

The Council’s decision sounds like straight supply-side economics. It contends that reducing impact fees will result in more development. If they believe that this will result in an impact tax gusher, it’s the exact same fantasy that fueled massive deficits under Reagan, Bush and Trump, when tax cuts for the wealthy did not swell the nation’s coffers. Otherwise, they are bringing in more people who will require services but leaving the county even less equipped to pay for needed infrastructure.

The Council has conveniently left the decision as to what cuts should be made due to revenue reduction to County Executive Marc Elrich. They’ll lay the blame for the fall in revenue and cuts at his door even though their policies will cause the problem.

Elrich vetoed the bill despite unanimous Council support. As they vote to override it and further starve public infrastructure, the Council will cast Elrich’s fiscally responsible decision simultaneously as far-left crazy and anti-affordable housing.

During his ten years on the Council, Hans Riemer has cast himself as the leader of efforts to provide affordable housing. He vilifies Marc Elrich’s policies as the source of the problem. Yet it’s Riemer and his allies, like two-three-term Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, who pushed this supply-side legislation, who have long been running the policy show in this area.

That hasn’t stopped them from regularly declaring current policy a failure to justify their latest idea. Obliviously, the Council regularly passes new legislation that Anderson, Riemer and friends claim will address the lack of affordable housing while simultaneously lamenting the continuing decline of affordable housing.

But don’t let the rest of the Council off the hook either. It voted to raise your property taxes while cutting those on favored developers (Councilmembers Hucker and Jawando opposed the latter). And all voted to reduce impact fees even though they all ran on improving public services.

Supported by monied interests, this show has been running for a long time. The Council gift wraps another tranche of money to wealthy interests that lobby for it in the gauzy rhetoric of affordable housing and social justice. The policy failure is then used to justify the next giveaway. Recycle and repeat.

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Council Drops the Other Purple Penny

We already know that the Purple Line is going to be massively delayed and way over budget. The Montgomery County Council inadvertently revealed just before the election that it also won’t bring the promised economic or housing benefits.

The Council voted 7-2 to heap new tax incentives on developers in order to make project happen around Grosvenor-Strathmore and other Red Line Metro stations in the County. Metro carries more passengers than the Purple Line and Grosvenor-Strathmore is a desirable location for development, as are several other Red Line locations.

If we need to give developers gobs of money to make development happen at these locations, the same will surely be true at Purple Line stations. Yet the Purple Line wasn’t sold that way. Land has been upzoned around all the Purple Line stations and we were told that development would follow.

No one mentioned the need for massive subsidies once the Purple Line was built. On the contrary, we were promised that development around these stations would help fill the county’s coffers even as it produced more housing and economic development around the stations. Turns out that’s not the case.

The only place where development is planned or underway is at Chevy Chase Lake. Unfortunately, this appears to be the only place where the economics make sense. We’ve paid literally billions to subsidize one economic development. The lobbying by the Chevy Chase Land Company paid off. For them.

So add the cost of huge development subsidies to the Purple Line tab.

The major advocates of the Purple Line have a lot to explain, but perhaps at the top of the list among the current county leadership are County Councilmember Hans Riemer and Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson. Hans Riemer was a former leader of Purple Line Now before joining the Council and has continued to advocate relentlessly for the project, as has his good friend, Casey Anderson, on the Planning Board.

Both present themselves as certain of the solutions to the region’s transit and housing problems. Even ignoring the out-of-control costs and massive delays, and I don’t know why we should, they heavily touted the housing and economic development benefits of the Purple Line. Neither Riemer nor Anderson ever explained that we would need to heap subsidies on top of the transit costs to make the housing and economic benefits happen.

Though they are far from alone in needing to shoulder blame, rather than being an economic cash cow, the Purple Line has now metastasized into the monorail episode from the Simpsons. Only it’s a lot less funny to be living it.

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Council Must Sustain Elrich’s Veto of Corporate Welfare

On a 7-2 vote, the Montgomery County Council approved a bill that would completely exempt real estate developments on WMATA property from property taxes for 15 years. Councilmembers Tom Hucker and Will Jawando voted against. The Council should sustain County Executive Marc Elrich’s veto of this corporate welfare masked as a social justice housing project.

This bill is such a bad idea that one hardly knows where to begin.

Proponents of transit endlessly sell the considerable funding required for it as the motor for development and smart growth that not only attracts jobs but increases land values and property tax revenues. We are told “if you build it, they will come.” Now, these same people tell us that they won’t come unless we “incentivize” (read: pay) them.

Even stranger, we are to pay these incentives to build high-priced apartments in desirable locations with very little extra affordable housing thrown in above normal requirements. I understand establishing enterprise zones with lower taxes in struggling neighborhoods, but Grosvenor-Strathmore and other Red Line stops don’t fit the bill.

Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D-1) has been quite aggressive in trying to sell Councilmember Hans Riemer’s bill:

None of the WMATA sites are being developed and developers with Joint Development Agreements are walking away all over the region, due to unique infrastructure requirements on these sites, high costs of high-rise construction, etc.

These sites currently collect ZERO property tax, generate ZERO housing, and provide virtually no public benefits aside from surface parking. I view that as an abject public failure, but respect anyone who prefers this status quo.

Multiple fiscal analyses have demonstrated both that high-rise projects don’t work without the incentive and that the Grosvenor project in particular would generate more revenue to the County in impact and income taxes than the property tax abatement (which the county wouldn’t otherwise receive without a project).

Councilmember Friedson argues we need to step up our corporate welfare game to compete when we shouldn’t even play this game. His argument also ignores that demand for homes in Frederick or Fairfax is based on other factors that far outweigh tax incentives linked to individual projects.

The uniqueness of the site argument fails to impress as somehow many buildings have been constructed around the whole region, indeed the whole country, around transit and difficult sites without the magic of tax incentives. (Manhattan exists!) I’m sure WMATA, developers and their supporters on the Council are happy to produce analyses showing otherwise, just as they always have in support of public spending on their agenda.

The incentives are a roundabout subsidy to WMATA. When we establish tax incentives the land becomes more valuable, so WMATA raises the price and recoups much of it. So it’s not even clear what share of this supposedly badly needed incentive the developers will see.

This tax giveaway also won’t increase the housing stock. When it’s built, Councilmembers Riemer and Friedson will point to it and say, “look what we did!” Except there will be another nearby project that didn’t happen because you’ve already pre-satisfied any demand with this one. Montgomery has plenty of land zoned for housing and buildings.

Councilmember Friedson also neglects to mention that the building will not have a zero cost to the county. Providing county services will cost money but Montgomery will receive a lot less than normal to cover those costs.

Andrew Friedson has been touted with much hope, including here, as the Council’s bright new economic light. If he wants to live up to this promise, he needs to shift his focus fast from this old-style ineffective developer welfare to more original ideas to attract commercial business to Montgomery.

The bill reflects Councilmember Hans Riemer’s long-term approach over several terms to housing, which has long dominated the Council. Unfortunately, it has had far more success in pleasing monied interests than it has accomplished in producing affordable housing. No doubt it also pleases David Blair’s developer-heavy crowd.

Councilmember Nancy Navarro has presented herself as second to none as a champion for social justice. She has stood up unflinchingly for often abused undocumented immigrants to the frequent dismay of their opponents around the State. Here, she argued that the Council needed to “be bold” and support this bill.

Except there is nothing remotely new, let alone bold, about giving a tax subsidy to developers. Speeding the production of high-priced apartments strikes me as the opposite of social justice.

I cannot help but wonder why this proudly progressive Council is focused on this legislation at this time when so many county residents are facing far more immediate and desperate problems. Even managing the day to day is still far from ordinary.

Charter Amendment A on Property Taxes

The crowning insult of this legislation is its juxtaposition with County Charter Amendment A. The short version is that the Council majority is now proposing to collect more in property taxes from ordinary residents even as it engages in this tax giveaway that has no valid economic or public purpose.

Charter Amendment A garners support from many because the current property tax system is not ideal for a variety of reasons (not the subject of this post). It effectively asks voters to loosen the very tight tax corset (it can only rise with the rate of inflation) so that the county can collect more if property values rise, as would likely happen now if the measure passes. It’s a tough ask at a time when many have seen incomes drop. One can argue that it is necessary when so many are in need.

But it is insupportable for the majority of the Montgomery County Council to offer a tax holiday to developers while increasing the take from ordinary citizens. It’s not progressive. It’s not liberal. It’s just bad economic policy wrapped in gaudy rhetoric that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It goes against this county’s good government traditions.

County Executive Elrich was right to veto this bad bill. The Council should vote to uphold his veto tomorrow.

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