How come HoCo has been out of compliance with the state forest conservation regulations for over 2 decades?!? The simple answer: No administration has been brave enough to even put forward a bill, knowing how controversial it would be. Until now!
How come a forest con bill stirs up controversy? Simplistically, environmental advocates seek to preserve the natural beauty and functionality of forests, while developers regard trees as something that gets in the way of “improving” the land with structures—at the maximum density possible, of course. Today developers regard the remaining trees as an expensive nuisance, something to be removed in order to provide a blank slate on which a computer can generate an uninspiring site plan that looks pretty much like every other. It has not always been like this.
There was a time when developers like Jim Rouse sought to preserve as many trees as possible ON a residential lot. They recognized that mature tree(s) would enable an individual lot to command a premium price. I’m told that in Columbia’s early days, signs were erected which said, “Other than you, this tree is the most valuable thing on this lot.”
Much of what has contributed to soulless, treeless development today is the declaration by developers— embraced by the DPZ and DPW– that “this is how we build today.” “This” means we strip and regrade and go for maximum density over good design or even good marketing sense. (Real example: a proposed site plan for a parcel with forested parkland on 3 sides, with a river on two—with NO units facing either feature!)
Shame on YOU Howard County
I applaud County Executive Ball for declaring through this bill that it is a new day, that site development plans for example must accommodate specimen trees. No more identify-them, get-a-waiver, and cut-them-down! Taking on the task of getting this bill developed and passed is consistent with his other environmental actions such as signing on to We’re Still In, protecting pollinators, and directing the planting of 44,000 trees this year.
But how comethis bill was developed without the input/assistance of environmental advocates and the development community? While both ‘sides’ will complain, this may have been a stroke of genius, which made producing a forest conservation bill possible. While I’ve personally embraced the value of ‘having a seat at the table’ I have also witnessed how unproductive a process that can be. Recent examples include the APFO Commission, the Mulching Commission, and the Clarion Development Regulation Study. In the case of the first two- many, many sessions resulted in little agreement or change in the final report. In the case of the third example—many, many sessions resulted in an exhaustive report of recommendations from a consultant with the process stopped there. When everyone is at the table with a blank canvas…. it reminds me of the saying that ‘a zebra was a horse created by a committee’.
Without Josh Feldmark, head of the Office of Community Sustainability taking the ‘keeping it in the office’ approach, the bill could have been ‘dead on arrival’ or the effort simply abandoned. Admittedly, I am among the first to suspect nefarious activity behind closed doors, but this administration has put my mind at ease with the process employed in this case.
How come my change of heart? Refer to the administration testimony submitted on the Council’s website https://apps.howardcountymd.gov/olis/PrintSummary.aspx?LegislationID=12378 for a detailed summary of the changes and features. (I highly recommend reading this to help prepare letters of support or testimony.)
Bill Mahoney at the OCS was tasked with painstakingly comparing the new bill with the current regulations. The nine page color-coded chart saved me days trying to do a side by side comparison, and made it clear which provisions go beyond just compliance with state law. In addition, the OCS actually reviewed site plans from 2013 to 2018 to see what difference the proposed changes would make. This kind of testing is valuable beyond measure to discern any unintended consequences or need for fine tuning!
The result is a bill which goes beyond “the minimum daily requirement” to turn a phrase. Given the two decades of non-compliance and the research on the critical role of forest retention and reforestation as tools to fight climate change, going beyond the minimum—to make up for lost time and ‘the sins of the past’– is indeed warranted.
I’m pleased that a coalition of 16 organizations has signed on to supporting and suggesting further strengthening measures to the bill. This is appropriate given the sky-is-falling counter arguments which can be anticipated from the development community (builders, real estate professionals, investors). One can expect to hear the same dire warnings of housing shortages (especially affordable ones due to higher prices), and total economic collapse. These scripted arguments hold no more water than the ridiculous assertion that ‘resulting longer commutes will pollute the air’. Clearly they disregard the fact that mature trees are needed to sequester carbon and produce the air we need to breathe…..
But the truly offensive issue to the development communityis that forest conservation potentially reduces the buildable space on a property. That correlates to fewer residential units or less square footage to rent in a commercial unit, thereby less profit margin. But just as developers were subsidized with ridiculously inadequate school impact fees for decades, so too has the county subsided their profits by not having forest conservation regulations compliant with state law. Worse yet, our HoCo government failed to enforce the lesser ones we do have!
IMHO the development community already owes residents of HoCo (and their children in overcrowded schools) a great debt. Now is NOT the time to subsidize them further at the sacrifice of our health and well-being, by watering down this legislation or failing to respect the lack of tree equity in the densely populated eastern part of HoCo.
Previous administrations and department heads permitted—even encouraged– the short sighted destruction of our forests through the over use of waivers, administrative adjustments, etc. for the mythical income of additional property taxes.
Taxpayers are aware that many public officials have been selling out the public’s health and quality of life for political contributions. They will be watching who is invited to speak at the Council work session, any resulting amendments, any delays, and the voting. Many residents will be adding their name to The People’s Voice online petition to ask our State Legislators to support a Howard County local Bill to stop campaign contributions to the positions that regulate their industry.
Please add your signature, your letter, or your voice to produce new outcomes through CB 62—and meet me on the high road, Susan
come our Council can’t ‘get the math right’ on development impact fees (CB-42)? Despite passionately professing a strong
desire to correctly and precisely set development impact fees to support school
construction (no matter how loooong it takes), the Council seems to be heading in
the wrong direction. Through amendments
which reduce or totally exempt certain developers or certain categories, the
Council is SUBTRACTING when they should be ADDING to the charges. They are having difficulty establishing an equation
with the right variables which solves HoCo’s problem of inadequate school capacity.
I suspect the problem stems from the assumptions underlying their calculations and the inability to eliminate irrelevant or misleading information.
this fee is rather like the dreaded math ‘word problem’ we all faced in math
classes. Surely you recall the infamous variety of “Two trains depart from two
stations forty miles apart at 4:50 p.m. Train A is traveling at 38 mph and Train
B is traveling at 45 mph. At what time
and at which mile marker will the engines begin to pass one another? Bonus
question: Will Mr. Onno still get to pay the early bird special rate for his dinner
if he waits until the engines pass one another?”
dangerous to make too many assumptions in this example just as with the impact
fee calculation. Should one assume from the start that the 2 trains are
actually headed to the station from which each other departed—if not the trains
may never pass one another. Must we guess at when the early bird special
the veracity of information provided by developers and their industry
association, as well as affordable housing advocates (including those whose
non-profits have the County as their major funding source) may provide similarly
misleading paths. Sadly the same is true for planning staff from the HCPSS and
the County, both of whom insist that new development only accounts for 42% of
new student enrollment.
do I keep thinking about an aunt who would often lament of her mischievous offspring
that “…one lies and the other swears to it.”
do actually respect the time and effort that has gone into that 42% calculation,
however, I don’t for one minute believe it.
Neither should you, the Council, or anyone who attended last week’s
Council work session. It was clearly stated that “coming from new development” has
been defined, by the planning departments’ rules, to only apply to any children
who enter the school system within the first 2 years after the newly built home
is occupied. Think for just a moment and you will realize that to assume, to
accept, that definition as rational thought, truly does “make an ass of u and
me.” To accept that egregious assumption
is to accept that the occupants of a newly developed home with eighteen month
old triplets will have no fiscal/capacity impact on our school system!
Until this basic assumption is addressed by the Council (and both planning departments) we will continue to grossly underestimate how many children are being generated by each new development. This miscalculation has been magnified exponentially by the number of proposed amendments which provide exemptions for ‘one bleeding heart story after another’. By lowering the much needed fees and lowering the units to which it will apply even more, Council members will be permitting developers to effectively continue to steal from our children as well as pass the financial burden to taxpayers.
WHILE I’M AT IT………
must also express my disappointment that some Council members, with the best
intentions to take care of our most vulnerable, are again assuming that
everything they are being told by “housing advocates” is correct. The part of
me that worked in the disability field for 40 years initially reacted with
enthusiasm to see that low income units for persons with disabilities were
being considered in CB-50-2019. However, if indeed the plan is to provide the
equivalent credit of 5 affordable units for developing 1 “disability unit” some
important information has clearly been withheld from the Council and the
vast number of adaptations necessary to make an existing unit accessible to an individual
with a physical impairment cost $200. When a new unit is constructed following “universal
design for living” principles, there is little extra expense involved over the
norm. For example, doorways are made wider, light switches are installed lower,
as are closet rods. But ALL homes have doors, light switches and closet
rods. Today’s no-step showers can
accommodate rolling in on a shower chair, and blocking for grab bars is inconsequential
while walls are still open. Cabinets are eliminated under bathroom sinks and
thresholds are eliminated throughout.
A conversation overheard between a developer and a development attorney confirmed this recently. It included an admission by the developer that the 1 for 5 deal would be a real money maker for them! How come there is seemingly no end to the benefits developers receive legislatively??? Let’s rethink that 5:1 trade-off please.
not too late to write to firstname.lastname@example.org
to provide guidance to the Council members on CB-42 and CB-50 before they vote
on Monday evening Nov. 4th.
them, as your math teacher did, to check their work–and meet me on the high road,
Continuing the thoughts of yesterday’s blog I’ll be contrasting CB-38-2019– designed to protect lives in the Patapsco Watershed by strengthening development and subdivision regulations in the Ellicott City Floodplain with CB-42 on development impact fees.
A major component of CB-38 is putting an end to waivers (which I’m lumping together with the almost indistinguishable alternative compliance, administrative adjustments, and variances). These are all different means by which developers are allowed to ignore our already insufficient regulations on forest conservation, storm water management, building in flood plains or on steep slopes, etc.
When DPZ allows development to proceed without strict enforcement of our weak and ambiguous regulations it often results in land being stripped of forests and completely graded in order to achieve maximum density, even when clearly inappropriate. This in turn results in a higher percentage of impervious surfaces, and thus even more challenging storm water management. This has proven problematic throughout the county. But in Ellicott City is has proven deadly.
I applaud Council Member Liz Walsh for
introducing this legislation to protect her constituents. I think many citizens
would love to see the same limitations enacted throughout the county, but
understand the reality of starting small when one can anticipate resistance.
I was encouraged that while some
department heads failed to make time for Ms. Walsh in order to work on
amendments together, they did at least show up for the work session. Deputy Directors
attended for DPZ and DPW, while the Director of Rec & Parks attended. None
the less I could feel my irritation grow at the sound of “We need more time to
study the ramifications.” (Keep in mind this bill was pre-filed in June!) I’m
hoping they will have completed their review of the amendments before this
evening’s Council session. I do soooo enjoy when Ms. Walsh calls them out when
deserved for not being prepared, having requested data, etc. I firmly believe
this will result in more transparent and efficient government! [I remain frustrated, however that HoCo
frequently skirts the rules themselves when constructing government projects.
This models bad behavior for developers who expect to receive the same
concessions on their projects.]
Here is a quick comparison of the
handling of CB 38 vs. CB 42.
protecting EC watershed
development impact fees
Number of sponsors & co-sponsors
bill been amended?
Fought by develop- ment community?
by County departments?
DPW, DPZ, Rec& Parks
Depts. attend meeting to work on?
attend work session?
Yes by DPW, DPZ, Rec & Parks
Neither DPZ nor BoE as requested
Supported by citizens?
but affordable housing coalitions
Supported by other Council members?
Opposition from Rigby & Yungmann*
Opposition from Rigby & Yungmann**
Likely outcome 10/7
* Jones not present @ work session
** Jones missed half work session
Ms. Walsh has bravely been on her own
with this comprehensive piece of legislation, despite campaign promises to work
for this type of legislation from other council members when candidates. It
should be noted that Ms. Walsh considered EVERY criticism provided in written
and oral testimony and opted to eliminate all provisions which were drawing
criticism from the development community or from HoCo department heads. This
has left a heavily amended, very bare bones version of the bill. But it is one
which provides incremental improvement. It is not PERFECT, but it does
represent PROGRESS—a value Ms. Walsh clearly embraces. She is clearly willing
to compromise and exhibits the skill and patience to decisively do so.
While work sessions provide a peak into how Council members will vote, it is not always definitive. Sometimes work sessions posing lots of questions appear to be used to offer lengthy explanations for why the Council member will not be voting for something. Absences at work sessions are concerning.
Logic would dictate that EVERY council member could vote in favor of this amended bill given the stripping of ALL objectionable terms and conditions to satisfy both developers and Department Heads. But it has been my experience as an observer that logic seemingly plays little role in government affairs. I fear CB-38 will simply be tabled ‘for further input’. Citizens who share my viewpoint can accept that, but ONLY IF CB-40, EXTENDING BY 3 MONTHS THE MORATORIUM ON BULDING in the Tiber and Plumtree watersheds IS PASSED. I’d bet that Council members NOT supporting CB-40 and eventually CB-38 will be clearly identified as having conflicts of interest from accepting developer monies and may become “one-termers.”
After a long silence, I’d like to share the
following advice to our County Council: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of
the good, meaning we should not be
paralyzed into inaction because we cannot achieve a perfect solution to a specific problem. The idealized perfect
solution becomes an obstacle to solutions that are adequate, or at least an
improvement on what we have now. (Neurologica 10/9/17)
numerous, perhaps too many, meaty pieces of legislation before the County
Council this month which MAY be brought to a vote tomorrow, October 7th.
I say MAY, because if a betting woman, I’d have money down on two bills of
great personal interest being tabled (put off). I hope they are of interest to
you as well, both for the bills’ content/ intent AND for the activities that
will likely delay their consideration.
After attending the Council
legislative session, reading testimony submitted, and attending the Council work
sessions on September 27 and October 4 I fear the handwriting is on the wall. Despite
my sincere hope for a new day, it appears nothing much is going to change at
this point. Like Councils before them, SOMETHING will prevent our new Council
from actually passing meaningful legislation to increase developer impact fees (CB-42-2019)
and to protect lives in the Patapsco Watershed by strengthening development and
subdivision regulations in the Ellicott City Floodplain (CB-38-2019).
background on each, and the reason for my pessimism:
CB-42-2019 proposes to raise the impact fees on residential new development from $1.32 to $6.81 per square foot.
With 4 of 5 Council members sponsoring or co-sponsoring (Rigby, Jung,
Jones, Walsh), one would expect this bill to be a sure and easy pass. As one
with a death grip on
optimism, I looked at this bill and thought “AT LAST! It has been a multiyear journey to get here,
but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Yet, how oddly poetic (or
perhaps suspicious?) that this bill is brought forward at a point in time when parents
are frantic over proposed redistricting. Parents have little remaining energy
to consider the root cause of overcrowding/ lack of capacity within our school
system. Significantly lower
developer fees in HoCo, compared with surrounding jurisdictions, have for
decades supported rapid development without provision for adequate public
facilities. As a result HoCo schools
and roadways are hopelessly overcrowded and forests are disappearing at a
frightening rate. It feels like every ploy imaginable—and a few unimaginable
–have been utilized to delay/prevent any negative impact on developers:
Who could comprehend former Executive Kittleman sitting on the APFO committee’s final recommendations for a full year only to introduce the legislation as basically written by the committee— and with so few points of agreement due to the committees inability to achieve super majority votes?
What activist can forget this post midnight scene? ……… Builders congratulate each other for quietly running out the legislative time clock when over capacity was redefined in the APFO bill to be 105% in elementary, 110% for middle, and for the first time setting a capacity on high schools (115%) beyond which development would be halted for up to 4 years. When APFO eventually passed, how many were surprised by the staggered effective date?
Who could have imagined our State Legislators would take three years (with a different delaying tactic
each year) to pass the new enabling legislation that finally permits the Council
to raise fees, but with predetermined exemptions.
In the current Council session Diffuse and Confuse continues to be tops in the Building Industry’s playbook and sadly it appears to be working yet again. How come the light at the end of the tunnel has once again proven to be the Development Train, loaded down with sad prophesies of the demise of Howard County, of the building industry, and (the red flag) of affordable housing? To quote Hiruy Lucas Hadgu, “The only time developers invoke affordable housing and equity is to protect their profits. This is not to say elected officials ………. don’t want to create equity or help bring affordable housing, but using their public profiles to elevate the message of developers is not a good way to show it.”
possible to describe here the intricate inter-relationship between developer
impact fees, the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, School Redistricting,
and Affordable Housing but you are welcome to revisit previous posts for a
refresher. You can also refer to
Yes, the Council should consider the opinions of everyone who presents or submits testimony, but hopefully they will identify that testimony which is completely self-serving and detrimental to the public good. I applaud the Council sharing how they arrived at the new fee to eliminate the argument that it was baseless.
I admit to personally having
difficulty accepting that only 42% of new
enrollments are generated by new development. I challenge how DPZ narrowly
defines a new student and their assertion that new homes only generate .5
students per newly constructed household. Consequently I’d be happiest with an even
higher fee since the current rate only covers the debt service on school
I applaud the Council calling a work
session on CB-42 to get additional information from the Board of Education and
from the Department of Planning and Zoning in order to reach their best
decision. Since both the BoE and the DPZ failed to attend the session (terribly
disrespectful!) I feel the Council should not allow itself to be further
The proposed rate is not perfect, BUT,
I would prefer to settle for the $6.81 rate immediately, before more
developments escape it completely. With so little undeveloped land remaining,
many already consider us ‘built out.’ We can never recapture that which was
given away during previous administrations, but we can say THIS is the new rate
for now—without exception– and set a re-evaluation date 2 to 3 years in the
future. That wouldn’t be PERFECT, but it
would be GOOD. And GOOD is far superior to our existing BAD situation.
Rather than debating endlessly who should be exempted, who should be grandfathered, who should be discounted, etc. I urge the Council to move forward and vote.
In my opinion there are important lessons here–
For the Building Industry:
Come up with
some fresh talking points. The current ones are stale and disingenuous.
expect sympathy from citizens. Man up, pay your fare share, and be thankful for
all the years you got to ride the gravy train at citizen expense.
love dense barren development, feel free to move YOUR family into some.
For HoCo Department Heads and staffs:
Council the respect and the courtesy of showing up when requested at work sessions.
prepared; don’t rely on “I don’t know that off the top of my head” or “I don’t
have that material with me” to delay the Council from taking action.
Accept the fact that they may move on
without you if you ignore the points above.
Remember providing adequate facilities to citizens trumps providing yet more income to developers, builders, land use attorneys, and realtors.
Please don’t sponsor a bill if you intend to weaken it by undertaking the role of Defender of the Detractors
Avoid checking texts from the ever present Party operative(s) during work sessions. It’s too easy for attendees to see who is hitting send just before you glance at your phone and offer new counter arguments.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!
Don’t try to contrast two important bills in one blog. This one is not perfect but I need to get it published.
So practicing what I preach, I’ll move on and try to address CB-38 in another blog before Monday evening
New Year. New Executive. TOTALLY New County Council. New Hope…at least a glimmer. (Note I am speaking entirely of local HoCo concerns, not the national scene.) To all the newly elected and newly appointed: PLEASE don’t burst my optimistic bubble just yet. PLEASE let me bask in the light of optimism at least for a little while longer. Let me keep the slight spring in my step……
There was a wonderful lull in County government activity, especially County Council actions, from the time of the election in November until the first Council legislative sessions in January. One could almost put one’s guard down, knowing there would be weeks before the need to take a stand and to prepare testimony on the first bills and resolutions of the year. Well on second thought, there was the need to testify on the 2020 budget and on bills proposed by our State legislators during this lull. Nevertheless, there was an opportunity for a bit of a break from constant vigilance.
This break helped me to experience a certain lightness. And I found I liked it! Consequently I resolved to try to look at things more optimistically. This took some effort given the number of gray, gloomy days in this period. But frankly it’s exhausting always waiting for the next shoe to drop re: yet another development, unresolved school overcrowding, inadequate roadways, flood ravaged towns, costly government projects I consider unnecessary, etc., etc.
The two keys to my attitude readjustment:
The first step to my ‘rehabilitation’ was admittedly to consciously work at being less well informed. I avoided the local paper, the HC web pages, even other blogs. I began to understand the choice of those who are tuned out and content to be ill-informed. That irresponsible behavior does free-up a lot of time for other things!
The second key step was to watch for any positive signs in the behavior of our newly elected officials. I could then comment on these observations to counter the doom and gloom of my activist comrades. I was, as an example, very pleased that the Executive recognized the importance of listening directly to his public in an extensive series of listening sessions which were considerately sprinkled around the County geographically and during different time slots. I was similarly pleased when the Executive’s staff was asked to reach out to ask me to compile my community’s list of short, mid, and long term priorities.
It was obvious to me that our new Council members were working long days to learn about all of the aspects of their positions. I so respect that they don’t hesitate to ask questions about complex things they need to understand. I regard this as a particularly critical behavior. IMHO it takes an intelligent person to ask a good question and one cannot make good decisions on important matters if one is hesitant to ask questions. While some in the public may be uncomfortable about having a totally new Council, it reminds me favorably of when I supervised cohorts of graduate students in an emerging field. Everyone embarking to learn new subject matter and skills provides a level playing field and one which fosters the ability to work as a team. I see signs of cooperation and team effort in our new Council. Oh how I hope it will continue.
No doubt my activist friends who have not adopted the same resolution for optimism thought they’d lost another fellow advocate to exhaustion when I’d express my positive hope for the future in response to their expressions of concerns. Yes, I am very concerned about how things are going with APFO. Yes, I worry about campaign contributions influencing votes. Yes, I am concerned about the dire financial predictions and looming tax raises. Yes, it bothers me that the development community is over-represented on some Transition Teams. But I’m keeping that death grip on optimism at least until the outcome of the Councils’ votes on Monday, February, 4th. I soooo don’t want to slip back into a defeatist, nothing-will-ever-change, mindset. But I can feel I am treading unstable ground.
Threats to my rehabilitation:
Admitting one’s addictions is critical, so here goes. My name is Susan and I am addicted to more than dark chocolate; I have that seemingly insatiable addiction to knowing-what-is-going-on. (Some would understandably add ‘and expressing my opinion on it’.)
Getting ‘back on the saddle’ meant diving into the legislative fray in January. My optimism ran high during some portions of the January 22 Council Legislative Hearing due to lots of great supportive citizen testimony on two bills (CB-2 and CB3) seeking to improve on our abysmal development regulations. (NOW!—not in 2+ years when a Code Re-write may occur).
My optimism was bruised during discussion of a proposed road realignment (CR-3) at taxpayer expense which will cause as many problems as it solves, benefits only commercial landowners, and ignores the consequences of expanding the public service area.
The Council Work Session generally sent me on a downhill slalom. Let me be clear that this was NOT the fault of the Council members. They were asking good probing questions. Unfortunately the responses from DPW and DPZ staff were all too familiarly vague and uncertain. Inexplicably they can deliver ‘this is how we do it’ in a sage like mentoring tone. For those listening intently, the meaning is actually ‘this is what’s convenient for us.’ I hope the Council will be quick to learn that ‘I may not be the best person to respond to that question’ is a dodge for avoiding a response not wanted on the record OR signifies a lack of cross training within and between departments. In either case, asking for THE knowledgeable person to be called to the meeting right then and there would be a great procedure to adopt. If this Council will continue, as was done at the work session, to demand proof of broad statements by departmental staff and the Office of Law there may yet be hope for Optimism!
I’m back in the saddle to testify, to blog, to advocate. But like someone returning to driving a car after a serious accident, I do have a death grip on that steering wheel. From my years working in the field of disability I firmly embrace the adage “Asking for help is a sign of strength.” I will need the on-going help of our elected officials and of you the citizenry to prevent my relapse into pessimism.
I offer my help in return. After a lovely break I am re-energized and prepared to tackle the important role each citizen has –to tune in to issues and to advocate for causes that support an improved quality of life for one’s own community and for the broader community. Won’t you do the same???
PLEASE take an active role in our County governmental matters. Support Council and Executive actions that benefit the many, rather than the few–and meet me on the high road,