Thursday, December 13, 2007

Legislative Update: Water and Sewer Master Plan

This Monday night, the County Council will consider changes to the County's Water and Sewer Master Plan. The Plan was last adopted in 2003. By law, the County is required to update it every few years.

Service Categories

The Plan contains maps that establish service categories for sewer and water such as Planned Service, Future Service, and No Public Service. These service categories are a planning tool to help the County project its capacity needs. Importantly for property owners, service categories determine how easy or difficult it is to extend public water or sewer to a neighborhood.

For example, it is simpler and quicker for a property owner to get public sewer service if the property is designated as Planned Service than if it is designated as Future Service. Both categories require property owners to submit a petition that goes through an administrative review process. The difference between the two is that Planned Service only requires administrative approval, but Future Service requires County Council approval as well.

Health Concerns vs. Development Concerns

The debate about public sewer is often controversial because it is not just about existing development but future development too. Often a property owner is unable to build on a vacant lot because the ground cannot support a septic system. Public sewer eliminates the need for septic systems and can make previously unbuildable lots buildable.

Proponents of extending public sewer argue that it is more sanitary than a septic system. It eliminates the maintenance headaches that sometimes go along with having private septic. Especially in low-lying waterfront neighborhoods, older failing septic systems can pose a health and environmental hazard. Proponents argue that public sewer should be evaluated based on existing health and development needs, and that zoning -- not the sewer and water plan -- should be what guides future development.

Opponents of public sewer argue that the lack of public sewer is in fact a back-door way to control development. Many communities do not trust our County government to uphold established zoning restrictions. For example, earlier this year the County Council upzoned several properties along Bestgate Road despite strong opposition from neighboring communities. Bringing public sewer to low-density neighborhoods will therefore make more intensive development inevitable.

Draft 2007 Master Plan

The County Executive has introduced Bill No. 84-07 to adopt the new 2007 Water and Sewer Master Plan. The Office of Planning and Zoning has posted the accompanying water and sewer maps on its website. I encourage property owners and neighborhood leaders to closely examine the maps to determine what changes, if any, may be proposed for their area.

The maps are not the easiest thing to decipher. To help people better understand the proposed changes, Planning and Zoning has prepared a summary of changes that affect Council District Six.

Monday's Hearing

Monday's County Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. Citizens can sign up to testify starting at 6:30 p.m. The agenda includes both a public hearing on the bill as well as legislative action. Monday is the last opportunity for council members to amend the bill, so it is critical that people not wait until Tuesday to contact their representative. For more information visit the County Council's webpage.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

A Proposal to restore our creeks and rivers

Last week Councilmembers Ron Dillon, Jamie Benoit and I drove to a quiet neighborhood in Glen Burnie to hold a press conference. Later in this post I will discuss our proposed amendment to Bill 76-07, the subject of the press conference. But first, here is what we found.

When we arrived, our group of a dozen or so activists, reporters and politicians parked our cars on Darcy Road, a short dead-end street with four houses, and walked to the end of the street. We stepped over a storm drain inlet in the curb and headed past the spacious backyards to our right. Soon we came to an undisturbed wooded area. Our shoes crunched over the branches, vines and fallen leaves beneath us. Just a short distance more and we reached our destination. (Click here for a location map).

Cutting through the heart of this wooded area was a deep gully, about ten feet deep and 12 feet wide. Trash and debris littered the ground on the bottom. We had intended to stand in the gully to hold the press conference, but our plans changed when we saw that there was no easy way to get down the steep, near-vertical drop of the gully walls. So we held the conference on the solid ground above.

What had created this severe chasm in the middle of this natural area? There was nothing in the natural landscape to cause it -- no steep hills or rushing streams. We were surrounded by single-family homes on comfortable lots with plenty of green space around. No parking lots, shopping centers, or high-rise office buildings were in sight.

We backtracked and followed the gully to its source: a simple storm drain pipe, half-clogged with dirt and debris. Could that one storm drain pipe really have created this gully?

The houses on Darcy Road were built 30 years ago in 1977 and 1978. The storm drain system was probably installed at that time. What is now the large gully was doubtless just a shallow drainage ditch at the time.

So what happened during the past 30 years? The answer has played out hundreds of times in similar neighborhoods across the county:

After every rainfall the water would flow from the road into the storm drain inlet, then out of the end of the pipe 100 feet away. The water brought with it not just litter but various chemicals it had picked up along the way: automobile oil, gasoline, paint chips, worn tire rubber, even lawn fertilizer. With nothing to slow it down, the water gained momentum as it went. By the time it shot out of the pipe into the drainage ditch, it had built up so much velocity that it gradually eroded away the soil.

This process repeated week after week, year after year, until the shallow drainage ditch had expanded into the steep gully we saw last week.

The problem is huge

Anne Arundel County has more shoreline than any other county in Maryland -- 530 miles of it. Take a minute to reflect on the size of that. If we were to take our shoreline and stretch it out into a straight line, it would reach from Annapolis to Charleston, South Carolina. And almost every one of our rivers and creeks is home to development and to gullies like the one off of Darcy Road.

The cumulative impact of all of this development is by now a familiar refrain: severely eroded creeks and rivers; unsafe water that sends people to the Emergency Room after only casual contact; catfish with cancerous lesions; dead zones with no fish or crabs at all; and not a single river that meets federal Clean Water Act Standards.

Fortunately, we know how to solve the problem. Our shortcoming is not lack of knowledge, it is the lack of political will and resources.

The solution has two parts. The first part is to replace the old stormwater infrastructure with more modern methods such as rain gardens, sand filters and infiltration trenches. The second part is to rebuild and restore the damaged streams to recreate their natural function.

The Department of Public Works estimates that the cost to restore our damaged waterways is more than $1 billion -- that's billion with a "b". The problem is so large that it won't be solved with baby steps. We need a new, substantial funding source to tackle the problem.

The "SMART Fund"

County Executive John Leopold has introduced a bill to raise new funds to address this stormwater problem. Bill No. 76-07 would create a new county fund called the SMART Fund, which stands for "Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries." Moneys raised would be used only for defined purposes such as stream restoration and water quality programs.

The bill would generate revenue by adding a new fee to any building or grading permit that creates more than 150 square feet of new impervious surface on a property. The bill would charge 25 cents per square foot for grading permits and 15 cents per square foot for building permits. These fees are projected to raise $5 million annually.

I applaud the County Executive for taking the initiative to introduce this bill. It is a step in the right direction because it acknowledges the critical role that county government must play to solve the problem.

However, while the proposed SMART Fund has merit, in my view it falls short in two key respects. First, the estimated $5 million revenue is inadequate and will barely make a dent in the backlog. Second, it holds future development responsible for fixing the damage caused by existing development. This approach will compound our county's affordable housing problem by making new development even less affordable. In fact, new development is not the problem because it must meet much stricter stormwater standards. Our problem has caused by the decades of existing development that's already here.

A better way

Ron Dillon, Jamie Benoit and I held the press conference last week to announce details of an amendment we are introducing at tonight's County Council meeting. The amendment retains the SMART Fund's purpose and uses, but establishes a fairer and more equitable funding stream.

The three main points of our proposal are as follows:

  1. It applies to all developed properties (instead of to future development only);
  2. It is projected to generate $10 to $11 million annually, double the amount proposed in the current bill; and,
  3. Despite raising more money overall, the base rate of $30 per household is still reasonable enough that it will avoid breaking the budget for families and small business owners.
Our amendment will assess an annual flat fee of $30 on all improved residential properties. This rate comes to $2.50 per month which is the same amount as the State's Bay Restoration fee (dubbed "flush tax") enacted by former Governor Ehrlich.

Commercial, institutional and industrial properties will pay a sliding scale of $30 for every 2,500 square feet of impervious surface. Therefore the amount paid will be directly proportional to the amount of impervious surface on the property: a small business with 1/4 acre of impervious surface will pay $150 per year; a larger facility with 5 acres of impervious surface will pay $2,640. The proportional fee structure creates a built-in incentive for property owners to reduce their impervious surface by installing stormwater methods such as rain gardens.

Other aspects of the proposal:
  • Families that make $35,000 or less per year qualify for a waiver.
  • The fee will be capped at $25,000 per property per year. (Only a handful of properties will even reach this cap. A property will need more than 2 million square feet of impervious surface to reach a fee of $25,000.)
  • Properties in the City of Annapolis are excluded because Annapolis already has its own stormwater utility fund.
  • The Department of Public Works will hold an annual public hearing to receive input on its priority list of stormwater projects. It will report annually to the council how it spent the money the preceding year and what its priority projects are for the upcoming year.
The bottom line

All of us have a stake in restoring the Bay and its tributaries. Our reasons may be personal because we boat, fish, crab or swim in Bay waters. We may just want the peace of mind to know that the rockfish we eat is healthy. Our reasons may be economic because we recognize the value of the Bay to our economy. The maritime industry pumped $400 million into Anne Arundel's economy in the year 2000 alone. Or our reason may be a moral one: it is simply our moral obligation.

For me this whole stormwater debate comes down to personal responsibility. Whether we choose to accept it or not, individually and collectively, we all are responsible for our actions.

The choice we are offered in this debate is whether to accept responsibility for the damage we have caused, or to deny it and push it off onto future generations. In my view, there is no choice. It is a basic obligation of public servants and citizens alike to be responsible stewards of the natural resources with which we are entrusted. We owe this to the generations who will inherit what we have done.

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Community Conversation on Public Education

On December 11th I will be hosting a Community Conversation on "Public Education in Anne Arundel County." The three panel participants will include:

  1. Michael Leahy, Member, Board of Education
  2. Don Lilley, Principal, Annapolis Senior High School
  3. Jeff Macris, Member, Annapolis Education Advisory Commission.
This forum will be held on Tuesday, December 11th, 2007 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the main Sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis at 333 Dubois Road in Annapolis. (Directions: Bestgate Road to N. Bestgate Road and left on Dubois Road). This event is free and open to the public.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Legislative Update: Zoning and More Zoning

Two zoning bills are scheduled for a public hearing and vote this coming Monday, October 1st. These bills affect a variety of zoning and development issues such as traffic, road capacity, and infill development of small lots.

  • The "Peninsula Roads Bill" (Bill No. 61-07), introduced by County Executive John Leopold, will apply tougher development standards to smaller subdivisions on peninsulas. Currently, county code applies Adequate Public Facilities (APF) traffic standards to subdivisions of five or more lots. Smaller subdivisions are not addressed. [APF standards help ensure that before new development goes forward, the roads, water and sewer, and other facilities are in place to handle it].

    Individually, a major subdivision has a greater traffic impact than a small subdivision. But collectively, several small subdivisions can also have a major impact. Bill 61-07 will allow the Planning Officer to impose APF requirements on smaller subdivisions when these smaller subdivisions will have a combined, measurable impact.

    This bill applies to five designated peninsulas in the County with only one way in and one way out. The Annapolis Neck Peninsula east of Bay Ridge Road is one such peninsula. I view this bill as an appropriate tool to address traffic problems on peninsulas and plan to support it.

  • Bill 69-07, also introduced by the County Executive, is billed as a "housekeeping" bill to clean up several technical parts of the zoning code. While some of the changes are minor, others are more substantive. I plan to introduce amendments to strike some of the following changes.

    • Assisted Living Facilities: Assisted living facilities are currently allowed as a Special Exception use in R-1 and R-2 zones if built on a minimum of 10 acres. Bill 69-07 proposes to reduce the minimum to five acres. In a strictly academic sense the proposed change is reasonable; the code already allows nursing homes on five acres in R1 and R2, so why not assisted living facilities too?

      The reason I oppose this change is timing. Practically speaking, it would affect only one project currently in the pipeline. The Shelter Development Group, a reputable company out of Baltimore, is proposing a 160-unit Brightview Assisted Living Facility on seven acres on Generals Highway just north of the Annapolis Mall.

      Under the current zoning the project would require a variance hearing. The variance hearing would provide the community with an important safeguard to protect that site from overdevelopment. However, if the zoning change goes through, no variance would be needed.

      Shelter Development is engaged in ongoing discussions with the community but there is no consensus to support the project at this time. It would be premature for me to support this zoning change so I am offering an amendment to strike it from the bill.

    • Infill Development: Another provision in the bill would open the door to more infill development of small, substandard lots.

      Many older communities such as Herald Harbor were subdivided before the county adopted our modern zoning code. The lots in these communities are often small, narrow and irregular. Currently the zoning code requires a variance to build a new house on one of these substandard lots. Bill 69-07 would eliminate the variance requirement for substandard lots that met certain criteria.

      In my view, as with the assisted living provision discussed above, the variance hearing serves as a safeguard to prevent overbuilding on these smaller lots. I am introducing an amendment to strike this provision and leave the code unchanged.

    • Waterfront lots: Another seemingly minor provision in this bill would change the definition of a waterfront lot in certain communities. The reason this is important is because stricter development standards apply to waterfront lots than to other lots. For example, a builder of a home on a waterfront lot must take extra steps to avoid blocking the neighbors' light, air and view. A waterfront lot also requires a fence permit for any sized fence, whereas most regular lots only require permits for fences six feet or higher.

      There is a good reason why stronger development standards apply to waterfront lots. Even though the lot itself is private property, the water view is a public benefit for the whole neighborhood. That's why the zoning code is set up to prevent a walling-off of the waterfront.

      What does this have to do with the bill? Currently, the zoning code's definition of a waterfront lot includes a lot that does not directly abut the water but is on a community-owned road that runs along community-owned waterfront. This definition is appropriate because construction on these lots impacts the neighbors' view just as much as construction on lots that abut the water. Annapolis Roads, Herald Harbor and Oyster Harbor are three examples of these communities with community-owned roads that run along community-owned waterfront property.

      The bill proposes to change the definition of waterfront lot to exclude these lots. Changing the definition in this way, although seemingly minor, would enable more walling-off of the waterfront by allowing more intensive development of these lots along the water. I am sponsoring an amendment to keep the definition of a waterfront lot unchanged.
The County Council hearing starts at 7 p.m. Citizens can sign-in at 6:30 to testify. It looks like it will be a lengthy meeting because the agenda includes not only these bills but the bill to ban fly-ash dumping, discussion of the school board budget and other items.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Legislative Update: community meetings, police employment and electronic signs

Three bills that I am co-sponsoring are scheduled for a public hearing and vote this coming Tuesday night. These bills affect community meetings, secondary police employment, and electronic signs. (Note that because of the Labor Day holiday, the Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday night instead of Monday.)

Community Meetings Bill

County law requires a developer to hold a community meeting before submitting a new subdivision or development plan. The meeting is "for the purpose of allowing the developer to present information regarding the development, and allowing the community to ask questions or provide comments (Sec. 17.2.107)."

The law requires the meeting to be held at an ADA-accessible facility "reasonably close" to the development site. In practice, this usually works out as intended. On a handful of occasions, however, the developer has creatively interpreted the term "reasonably." Earlier this year, for example, a developer held a meeting for a proposed development in Crownsville at the Eastport/Annapolis Neck Library, a good 30 minutes and two zip codes away.

To correct this loophole, Bill No. 62-07 requires that developers hold the community meeting "within five miles of the development site." On that rare occasion when the five-mile limit is impractical, for instance in rural South County, the five-mile limit may be waived but only by the Planning and Officer.

County Executive John Leopold and Council Members Jamie Benoit, Cathy Vitale and I are co-sponsoring this bill.

Police Secondary Employment Bill

Anne Arundel County police officers have long held secondary jobs at restaurants and other businesses around the county. This secondary employment provides a quadruple benefit: first, it enhances public safety by putting more uniformed officers out into the community; second, it accomplishes this without spending taxpayer dollars; third, it provides business owners with well-trained personnel to enhance security and safety at their establishments; and fourth, it provides a reasonable way for police officers to earn additional income.

Several years ago, the County's Ethics Commission opined that it was a conflict of interest for police officers to work secondary employment at establishments that sold alcohol. The reasoning was that the officer might feel compromised if he or she observed an alcohol violation, because the establishment, not the government, was paying for him or her to be there. In other words, according to the opinion, an officer could be reluctant to make an arrest or take an action that might disrupt the establishment's revenues.

When the opinion came out, the police chief at that time, Tom Shanahan, disregarded it. He continued to allow police officers to work secondary employment at restaurants that served alcohol. An Ethics Commission opinion is strictly advisory and Chief Shanahan was within his authority to disregard it.

Earlier this year, the new police chief, James Teare, made a decision to prohibit secondary employment at establishments that served alcohol. Even though such employment was not prohibited by law, Chief Teare wanted to be consistent with the Ethics Commission's opinion.

As I indicated above, secondary police employment provides several benefits. I believe these benefits are greatest at an establishment that serves alcohol. When the bartender yells "last call" is when the presence of a uniformed officer is most helpful. The officer can provide a deterrent effect for unruly patrons as they head to their cars, and also provide an added level of security for the remaining employees who are closing up after the customers leave.

Bill No. 59-07 will amend the law to clarify that police officers can indeed work secondary employment at establishments that serve alcohol and also at bingo parlors. It draws the line at bars, and only permits secondary employment at restaurants whose primary business is not alcohol. I support expanding this provision in the future to allow secondary employment at bars as well, but the police union is requesting only the current language. For now the police union just wants the law to affirm what had been the practice for many years.

It bears mention that the nature of secondary employment has been misconstrued in some of the press coverage. Contrary to what was reported in one article, officers may not work as bouncers or assist in the operation of the business in any way.
Secondary employment allows an officer to be paid to remain onsite, provide a calming presence, and respond in a police capacity when necessary.

County Executive Leopold and Council Members Ed Middlebrooks, Ron Dillon, Cathy Vitale and I are co-sponsoring this bill.

Electronic Sign Bill

You have probably noticed more and more electronic signboards with moving images popping up around the county. As these signs become more affordable, we can expect to see more businesses erecting them.

I am concerned about this trend for two reasons. The first is public safety. Our eyes are naturally drawn to moving images, especially bright, electronic red dots. The whole purpose of these signs is to attract attention. Every driver is responsible for driving safely, but the fact is that we have too many distractions while driving already. Even if I am driving responsibly, do I want the driver next to me to be reading a moving sign instead of paying attention to the road?

The second reason is aesthetics. I admit that this is getting into a personally subjective gray area. Glitzy signs can be attractive and they do have their place, but not in Anne Arundel County. Our county still has a unique, attractive character and we should be doing what we can to preserve what makes us special. My concern is that ten years from now, these signs will be everywhere and we'll look more like the Las Vegas Strip than the county we know and love today.

Although the Chamber of Commerce opposes this ban, I believe that in the long run it will be good for our local economy. Strong design guidelines establish a sense of place and help attract new businesses to an area. Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute (not the one from The Tonight Show) has written extensively on this issue. (Lessons in Community Development Learned from Traveling is a brief piece he wrote in 2005 about development in San Antonio.)

Bill No. 63-07 establishes modest limitations on how electronic signs display their messages. The bill prohibits "... moving picture or video images, moving electronic images, (and) moving, flashing, or scrolling text messages..." The bill does not ban electronic signs, nor does it require businesses to take down any electronic signs they already have. Instead, it simply requires that an image remain static for at least five seconds.

Councilmember Jamie Benoit and I are co-sponsoring this bill.

To Testify

The Council Meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Arundel Center. Anyone wishing to speak may sign up beginning at 6:30 p.m. For more information visit the County Council's webpage.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Giving a voice to our maritime community

This past Monday night I introduced a bill to help foster and grow our county's valued maritime sector.

Bill No. 56-07, co-sponsored by Councilman Ed Middlebrooks, will create a countywide Maritime Advisory Board. This Board will help Anne Arundel's diverse maritime community speak with a unified voice and advise the County on issues that affect it. Doing so will benefit not only the maritime industry, but all of us who value our county's maritime character and quality of life.

Maritime industry in Anne Arundel County

Individually, many maritime businesses are small, locally-owned operations that employ just a handful of people. Collectively, the maritime indusry is a major economic force. According to the Boating 2000 report by the University of Maryland, Maryland's maritime industry generates a massive $1.6 billion economic impact statewide. Anne Arundel County alone generates $400 million, a full quarter of the statewide impact. This is not surprising considering that more boats are registered here than in any other county in Maryland.

Why do we need another County board?

Anne Arundel's maritime industry is well established but we cannot afford to take it for granted. Maritime businesses have to navigate more than the usual amount of regulations because they are located literally at the juncture where land meets water. County government impacts so many aspects of the industry, from zoning and permits to health and environmental regulations. That's why decision makers need to be informed and understand the effects of their decisions on our maritime community. This new Board will give the industry a platform from which to advocate for its concerns.

What about water quality?

With dead zones sadly becoming more common in our rivers and the Bay, people are becoming more concerned about our water quality. Maritime businesses have a special responsibility to be good stewards of the water. In recognition of this, the bill establishes that one of the Board's voting members shall be one of our county's RiverKeepers. Ensuring an environmental voice on the Board just makes good sense. After all, maritime businesses benefit too when our creeks and rivers are clean and safe and support aquatic life.

Next steps

Bill No. 56-07 is on the agenda for a public hearing and vote on Monday, August 6th. The council meeting is at 7 p.m. in the Arundel Center. People can sign in to testify beginning at 6:30 p.m. If and when the County Council adopts the bill, the County Executive will appoint the members. I am hopeful that the Board will be appointed and will start meeting by the end of this year.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Annapolis Neck Zoning recap

Last week the County Council adopted the Annapolis Neck comprehensive zoning bill. The final version that passed is a mixed bag.

The adoption finally brings closure to a 10-year planning process that started with the 1997 General Development Plan. On the plus side, the bill limits future development on hundreds of acres of environmentally sensitive land south of Forest Drive, as recommended by the 2003 Annapolis Neck Small Area Plan.

In the minus column, some amendments that passed open the door to more intense development by upzoning several parcels along the Bestgate Road corridor. Most disheartening is that the bill fails to honor the agreement reached by community leaders and owners of the Samaras property on Bay Ridge Road. I'll discuss this agreement more towards the end.

What's in the adopted bill

  • Downzoning:

    The adopted bill downzones all five areas identified in the March 11 bulletin ("Annapolis Neck Zoning, at last"):

    • 600 acres on peninsulas south of Forest Drive. The bill "grandfathers" any permit applications already in progress so they can proceed under the existing rules;
    • Two areas that total 18 acres at the intersection of Route 2 and MD 665; and
    • All of Quiet Waters Park and a 3.5 acre addition to Peninsula Park;

      I voted for these changes, all of which were recommended by the 2003 Small Area Plan.
  • Bestgate Road corridor:

    The adopted bill creates more intensive zoning on four separate parcels from one end of Bestgate Road to the other.

    • One parcel at the intersection of Generals Highway is the site of the former Naval Institute book warehouse. It was already zoned C-2 commercial and the bill upzones it to C-3.

    • The other three parcels were all residential but are now commercial. These include:

      • Several residential lots along Fowler Road across Bestgate Road from Fowler United Methodist Church;

      • The home site between Sunrise Assisted Living and the 24-hour Emergency Veterinary Clinic. This is to become a new dental clinic;

      • The house at the intersection of Rowe Boulevard and N. Bestgate Road across from St. John Neumann Church;

      I voted against these changes for several reasons. First, the 2003 Small Area Plan recommended no changes to Bestgate's zoning. Years of public input and thoughtful deliberations went into that Plan. It should not tie the Council's hands, but the Council should only depart from it for good reason and with broad community support.

      The Bestgate corridor should be examined in a broad context rather than piecemeal. Before allowing more intense commercial development there in the future, the County should first understand what the impacts will be on traffic, the environment, water and sewer capacity, and the residential quality of life in adjacent neighborhoods.
What's not in the bill
  • Changes to Route 2:

    In contrast to Bestgate Road, the Council made no changes to Route 2 south of Admiral Cochrane Drive. Several residential property owners had requested amendments to change their zoning to commercial.

    The County's long-established policy has been to keep Route 2 residential south of Parole. Neighborhoods such as Gingerville, Wilelinor and Poplar Point have fought time and again to prevent expansion of commercial development there. I ran for office partly on a platform to contain growth and protect the character of these neighborhoods. No member of the Council offered any amendments to upzone properties along Route 2 south of Parole.

  • Samaras agreement:

    For the past four months, several community leaders worked hard to negotiate a landmark agreement with the owners of the properties referred to as the Samaras property. These six acres on Bay Ridge Road include the C&C Liquors store across from Georgetown Road, as well as several residences next to and behind it.

    The agreement secured several concessions to benefit the community. It would have required the property owners to build LEEDS-certified green buildings; replicate the stormwater runoff as if the land were in its pristine, natural state; protect a forest conservation easement along the rear property line; reduce curb cuts onto Bay Ridge Road; and add a bike path.

    In addition to these specific concessions, the property owners agreed to establish a design review board of residents to work with the developer and monitor the project from start to finish. This would have literally given the community a seat at the table to help shape the development in a positive way.

    In return for these concessions, the agreement called for rezoning the balance of the property from R-2 residential to C-1 commercial. Making the property all commercial would have benefited both parties. It would have given the property owners the financial return to pay for the concessions. It also would have meant no more houses along this stretch of Bay Ridge Road, something the community leaders were trying to avoid.

    The community representatives who participated in the negotiations shared my belief that some development is inevitable on that site. The purpose of the agreement was to ensure that when the site does get redeveloped, it would be done in a neighborly way that enhanced rather than diminished our quality of life.

    A majority of the County Council voted down the amendment that would have implemented the agreement. Instead the Council adopted an alternate amendment that rezoned only a portion of the front of the property to commercial. Unfortunately, that amendment was inadequate to implement the agreement. It will likely lead to a small strip shopping center in the front and more houses in the rear, exactly what the community leaders didn't want.
It is expected that any major piece of legislation will see some changes as it works its way through the process. Still, it is disappointing that this final bill so clearly disregards the community's will in two areas: by changing portions of Bestgate Road from residential to commercial, and by failing to honor the agreement for the Samaras property.

What's next

County Executive Leopold has signed the bill and it will soon become law. The book is now closed on the Annapolis Neck zoning bill.

Later this year the County expects to start the next General Development Plan. This planning process, expected to take 18 months, will set the blueprint for future county growth, development, and preservation. Although the exact GDP process is unknown, it is likely that the County's immediate focus will be on West County to prepare for the imminent military expansion. The next zoning bill for the Annapolis Neck is probably several years away, if not longer.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Budget recap

Last week the County Council adopted the Fiscal Year 2008 budget for Anne Arundel County. The $1.44 billion budget includes $1.22 billion in operating funds and $219 million in capital projects.

The County Auditor noted that this is the tightest budget in 20 years. The budget limits spending increases through a combination of tax rate cuts and expense cuts. At the same time, the budget funds a record increase to the Board of Education.

Overall, the budget process was collaborative and it worked well. Although many worthy items were not funded, we did the best we could to balance different objectives with the money available.


The budget reduces the property tax rate by three percent, from 91.8 cents to 89.1 cents per $100 of assessed value. This reduction is required by the county’s property tax revenue cap, which requires the county to reduce the tax rate when rising assessments outpace the rate of inflation. With this tax rate cut, Anne Arundel County continues to have the lowest property tax rate ($0.891) and income tax rate (2.56%) of any of Maryland’s “big seven” largest jurisdictions.

This past March, the Standard & Poors bond rating agency awarded us a coveted Triple-A bond rating. This valuable designation will save taxpayers money by letting the county borrow money at more favorable rates to pay for long-term capital improvements. This rating is due in large part to the county’s history of prudent fiscal management.

What’s in the budget

The budget invests a record $545 million to the Board of Education, an increase of roughly $29 million. This increase funds 213 new positions including 111 new teachers and 45 new teacher aides. The budget also funds the negotiated 6 percent teacher salary increase supported by the County Council.

The budget includes $25,000 for a proposed Forest Drive commuter express shuttle. I have requested a $25,000 match from the State of Maryland and an in-kind match from the City of Annapolis. By partnering together, the City, County and State can make this new service a reality.

Several capital projects in District 6 are funded. Most of the press attention centered on the Quiet Waters Park Ice Rink repair which made it through. (The County is paying $750,000 of the $2 million total price tag. The State is paying the remaining $1.25 million through its Program Open Space funds.)

Other funded projects include the Forest Drive road widening project to add an additional through lane in each direction between Chinquapin Round Road and Hilltop Lane. Engineers estimate that this will reduce backup times by 25 percent during peak hours. The budget also funds an expansion of Peninsula Park on Bay Ridge Road, and keeps the new Annapolis Neck Fire Station on schedule to open in late 2008.

What’s not in the budget: full funding for education

Despite the record funding and new positions, in my view the budget does not do nearly enough to bring our public school system “from good to great,” as schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell often says.

Although 213 positions may sound like a lot, many of them are mandated and do not address existing needs. For example, almost 100 of the 213 new positions are going to a state-mandated all-day kindergarten or to Pre-K. The budget partially funds the IB Middle Years Program at Annapolis Middle School and two other schools, but fails to fund the new teaching positions that go along with it.

It is unclear how the Board of Education will provide for the new Annapolis High School initiatives. AHS faces the prospect of a state takeover if it fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) during this coming school year. Principal Don Lilley has good ideas such as identifying struggling, incoming ninth-graders and providing them with a rigorous educational program before they fall further behind. But he can only implement these initiatives if the money is there.

It is a common misperception that most education dollars should fund only teachers, and that non-teacher positions are mostly unnecessary. In fact, without the help of guidance counselors, social workers, pupil personnel workers, secretaries, test coordinators and other staff, teachers would be unable to spend the necessary time on instruction. It is vitally important to maintain a full component of these services.

It is hard for a student to excel when his or her family is in the midst of a crisis such as going through a divorce or battling addiction. Guidance counselors can intervene in these difficult situations and help students find stability and stay focused. Unfortunately, guidance counselors, social workers and others are spread far too thinly to do their job well. Guidance counselors are often unable to even meet with students because the lack of test coordinators requires them to spend weeks on end doing paperwork instead.

What’s not in the budget: non-profits

The budget cuts grants to non-profits by almost 50 percent. Although the County Council and Executive restored a little over $800,000 in funding, severe cuts may force many agencies to close their doors. It is especially distressing that the County provided no funding at all to the OIC Job Readiness Center and Centro de Ayuda (Center of Help), two local non-profits. OIC has offered adult basic education and job skills training to thousands of low-income county residents since 1978. Center of Help is one of only a handful of organizations that assist Spanish-speaking residents with everything from paperwork to after-school programs.

In my view, many grants to non-profits are sound investments that are more than matched by the non-profits’ own resources. Non-profits leverage their public funding to bring in additional resources such as foundation grants and private donations. Armies of dedicated volunteers supplement paid staff. Cultural and arts groups also make an intangible but important contribution to our quality of life. They not only bring jobs and revenues to our county, they help make it a vibrant livable community instead of a bedroom community of commuters.

The County recently sought and received the State grant office's assistance to help local non-profits pursue other funding sources in the future. This is a welcome offer but unfortunately may be too late to help some agencies. Many of the non-profits who were counting on County grants have no time to replace those funds before the fiscal year starts on July 1st.

What does the future hold?

Our economy is not as robust as it was just a couple of years ago. For instance, real estate transfer and recordation taxes, which account for more than $100 million in County revenues, have been declining for two years. Next year the state has to solve a huge structural deficit that many budget experts believe will lead to cuts in state aid to counties. Clearly we need to be frugal as we go through an uncertain time.

Still, at some time Anne Arundel County will need to decide if it is content with the services it offers and the achievement level of its schools, or if it wants to do better. I believe that Anne Arundel County cannot afford to continue on its current path. Of the big seven counties, Anne Arundel ranks sixth for our ratio of students to instructional staff and seventh for non-instructional staff. Our rank is a meager 21st and 20th in these two categories when compared to all 24 counties statewide.

In the Annapolis feeder system, almost 40 percent of middle school students attend private school. This is unacceptable for so many reasons. Around Fort Meade our county will bear the brunt of, and pay the infrastructure costs for, a tremendous military expansion. We will only realize the full revenues associated with that expansion if new taxpayers choose to live in our county rather than Howard County or another jurisdiction. We need a top-notch school system in order to compete. We owe it to ourselves and to our children.

I welcome your thoughts on these and other issues. You can reach me at 410-222-1401 or by email at

More Resources

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Forest Drive Commuter Shuttle?

Imagine a world in which commuters who live along the Forest Drive corridor could take the bus into Washington D.C. without ever having to get into their cars. Could it happen? Yes. Whether or not it does depends in part on whether there is enough interest to warrant a Forest Drive Commuter Shuttle.

The problem

Traffic moves at a snail's pace on Forest Drive and Aris T. Allen Boulevard during the morning and evening commutes. Commuters lament that it takes longer to drive from their houses to Route 50 every morning than it does to reach Washington D.C. once they're on Route 50.

The Maryland Transit Administration runs two popular commuter bus routes from Annapolis to the New Carrollton Metro station (Route 921) and into D.C. (Route 922). These routes pick up and drop off passengers at the Navy Stadium, at a few stops along West Street and at the Harry S. Truman Park-and-Ride off Riva Road. It is a convenient service for people who live in town.

The problem is that commuters who live along Forest Drive have to first get in their cars to reach the Park-and-Ride. And once someone drives down Forest Drive, it's usually easier to just keep driving into D.C. than to park and wait for the commuter bus.

A solution?

A possible remedy is a Forest Drive Commuter Shuttle. Its route would be a straight shot along Bay Ridge Road and Forest Drive to the Truman Park-and-Ride. It would stop at one or two intercept lots to pick up passengers. By offering commuters an alternative to battling Forest Drive traffic, it could encourage more bus ridership and take a few more cars off the road.

Where would the intercept lots be? One could be at Peninsula Park on Bay Ridge Road. It is ideally located near a dozen neighborhoods from Arundel on the Bay to Annapolis Roads. It's so convenient that people could bike there instead of drive. If a suitable location were found, another lot could be farther up Forest Drive near Spa Road or Hilltop Lane.

Would a Commuter Shuttle cure gridlock on Forest Drive? Of course not. But it would make a big difference for those who used the service. Imagine, leaving your house in the morning and taking the bus all the way into Washington D.C. without ever getting into your car.

Is there interest?

Right now this is just an idea. It is unclear if, when or how it might become a reality. The first step is to determine if there is enough interest to pursue this further. Please contact me with your input. I especially encourage feedback from people who live along the Forest Drive corridor and commute into D.C.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Annapolis Neck Zoning, at last

On March 5th, County Executive John Leopold and I introduced the long-awaited Annapolis Neck comprehensive zoning bill (Bill No. 13-07). This bill implements the zoning changes recommended by the 2003 Annapolis Neck Small Area Plan (ANSAP).

One of my first priorities after last Fall's election was to work with the Administration to get this bill introduced. Its zoning changes will help protect the character of the peninsula (Read today's story in The Capital.)

A Long Time Coming

This bill completes a process that spans three county administrations. In 1998 then-County Executive John Gary supplemented the countywide General Development Plan (GDP) with a localized planning process based on 16 geographic areas. The Annapolis Neck area was among the first round of Small Area Plans to get started.

The County Council adopted the Plan on March 17th, 2003. Adoption was the first step to formalize the Plan's recommendations. The next step was to implement the zoning changes. That's what this bill does.

What's in the Bill

The bill downzones five areas on the Annapolis Neck Peninsula:

  • The most substantive change downzones 604 acres that extend into the South River south of Forest Drive. This land comprises much of the Childs Point, Melvin/Ferry Point and Persimmon Point peninsulas. Their current zoning is either R1 or R2 which allow 1 or 2 houses per acre, respectively. The bill downzones these peninsulas to RLD which is a more rural designation of 1 house per 5 acres.

    This downzoning protects about 20 vacant lots on these environmentally sensitive peninsulas from being developed. About 40 lots on these peninsulas are currently vacant, of which about 20 are already restricted by Critical Areas regulations. This zoning bill prevents development on the remaining lots.

  • Two of the changes downzone a total of 18.2 acres along MD 665 at the interchange with MD 2.
    Current zoning: C4 and R15
    Proposed zoning: R2 and C3

  • The remaining two changes are considered housekeeping and downzone to Open Space all 336 acres of Quiet Waters Park and a small 3.5 acre parcel next to Peninsula Park.
    Current zoning: R1 and R2
    Proposed zoning: OS
What's not in the Bill

The process has taken such a long time that some of the Plan's recommendations no longer apply. For example, the Plan recommended downzoning property next to the Cape St. John community off Riva Road. That property has since been subdivided under the current, higher-density zoning, so that change is not in this bill.

The bill also makes no changes to the Parole Growth Management Area (PGMA). The PGMA is a separate planning area within the Annapolis Neck that encompasses hundreds of acres of land. Parole's current zoning reflects the last adopted Parole plan from 1994, the Parole Urban Design Concept Plan.

In 1999 the County appointed a committee to revise Parole's zoning. The committee produced a report in 2003 titled Parole by Design but it was never adopted. Bill 13-07 maintains the 1994 zoning currently on the books.

The 2003 Parole Plan needs to be revived, but not at the cost of delaying the Annapolis Neck zoning bill even longer. The Administration and I are moving forward with this bill with an understanding that Parole will be revisited soon after the next GDP process.

Next Steps

Citizens can request zoning amendments for any property within the planning area. Amendments must be requested in writing by Monday, March 19th. Forms are available online.

The County Council's public hearing is set for Tuesday, April 3rd at 7 p.m. The public is encouraged to testify or contact the councilmembers in writing.

When the ANSAP process began in 1999, the county imposed a moratorium on any rezonings in the planning area. It was intended to be temporary but has remained in effect because the process has taken so long. As with the other Small Area Plans, the moratorium will expire once the council adopts the rezoning.

The council is expected to vote on the bill in late April or May. The zoning changes will take effect 45 days after the council adopts the bill.

More Resources

  • Maps
  • Table of zoning changes

  • 2003 Annapolis Neck Small Area Plan

  • 1994 Parole Urban Design Master Plan

  • Description of zoning districts

  • Map of all 16 Small Planning Areas

  • Zoning amendment request form
  • Thursday, March 8, 2007

    Blog makes news

    The Capital ran a recent story about this blog being a first for a county politician. While the medium may be new, the practice of keeping consituents informed has been around a long time. Councilwoman Cathy Vitale has written a monthly column for the Severna Park Voice newspaper. Several local pols have also contributed pieces to neighborhood newsletters.

    The blog may be newsworthy today, but in just a few years' time it will probably be amusing to think back on the time that a blog was something special.

    Thursday, February 22, 2007

    Growth Task Force a good first step; now we need a Growth Boundary

    For too long, the City of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County have lacked a coordinated effort to manage growth and traffic on the Annapolis Neck Peninsula. The city's recently appointed Growth Task Force may signify the start of a more productive approach.

    Mayor Ellen Moyer, County Executive John Leopold and I have all appointed members to this committee (Read the recent Baltimore Sun article about the committee's formation). This three-way participation is important for two reasons.

    First, the committee needs buy-in from both the City and the County for its recommendations to have much of a chance. A committee appointed solely by one would be unlikely to carry much weight with the other. Because the County and City both had a role in appointing the Growth Task Force, they both have a vested interest in seeing that its recommendations reach fruition.

    The second reason is symbolic but no less important. After many years of minimal city/county cooperation, this joint effort sends a strong signal of change. The mayor and county executive, working together, are the only ones who can set the tone. To that end, both Mayor Moyer and County Executive Leopold deserve credit for starting off on the right foot.

    This joint appointment of the members is a good first step. The recently-announced appointment of city and county staff support is also positive. But the commitee has a long and difficult road ahead. For one thing, neither the city nor county has a long-term vision for the city's boundaries. Should the city continue to annex land or not? If so, where and under what conditions? No consensus has ever been reached about a long-term city growth boundary.

    Need for a Growth Boundary

    During my five years on the Annapolis City Council I was often frustrated by the piecemeal approach toward annexation. In the absence of a long-term growth plan, individual annexations were shaping our destiny for us. Each annexation became the proverbial tail wagging the dog.

    The city administration supported each annexation request for several valid reasons: to maintain a robust tax base; to provide for efficient delivery of services; and to control the development of land right on its borders.

    Non-city residents angrily opposed the annexations for equally valid reasons: concern about more traffic when Forest Drive was already over capacity; concern about the environmental impact of losing more land to development; and fear that the city would impose its urban vision of development on their suburban neighborhoods.

    The one thing people on both sides of the debate agreed on was the need for a clear plan to govern annexations. Everyone agreed that the existing piecemeal approach made no sense.

    Now is the time to do it. The Growth Task Force is the first body in years with the stature and political buy-in to pursue this goal.

    Easier Said Than Done

    Despite the need for an urban growth boundary, and despite the widespread agreement that we need one, there is a reason why we don't have one yet: talking specifics is a lot harder than talking in generalities. In other words, it's fine to talk about a growth boundary just so long as that boundary is nowhere near me.

    I do not have a specific proposal to offer, but such a plan should not be the brainchild of one politician. It requires public input and serious discussion among stakeholders to find common ground between the city's and county's general development plans.

    This is where the Growth Task Force comes in. It is comprised of both city and non-city residents. It enjoys the support of political leaders without the baggage of being perceived as "political." It has a unique opportunity to chart a new course for our future.

    As difficult as this goal may be to achieve, we need to try. Otherwise we are willingly condemning ourselves to more of the status quo: an adversarial situation in which pro-annexation forces and anti-annexation forces, like two opposing armies, hunker down in their trenches and fight fiercely over a few acres of ground -- well-intentioned people expending tremendous amounts of time and energy fighting each other instead of working together in support of a shared plan.

    Fortunately, we know that this goal is achievable. Other jurisdictions around the country have done it. Our neighbor Baltimore County has done it with its long-standing URDL (Urban Rural Demarcation Line). Granted, Baltimore County has no municipalities, but it faces the same development pressures we do.

    If Baltimore County can do it, why can't we? It's time for us to try.

    Friday, February 16, 2007


    Good communication makes for good government. This belief is what motivates this weblog.

    The Cohen Bulletin is an online service for the Sixth District of Anne Arundel County. Its purpose is to inform people about legislation, where I stand on certain issues, and why. I hope it contributes to a positive discussion about the policies and politics that shape our county.

    Please contact me with your feedback and tell me how I can better represent you on the County Council. Thanks for visiting.

    - Josh