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A Contrasting Approach to Progress Over Perfection

A Contrasting Approach to Progress Over Perfection

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.

Issue CB-38 protecting EC watershed CB-42  development impact fees
Number of sponsors & co-sponsors 1 4
bill been amended? extensively No
Fought by develop- ment community? Yes Yes
Resisted by County departments? DPW, DPZ,
Rec& Parks
DPZ
Depts. attend
meeting to work on?
NO n/a
Depts. attend work session? Yes by DPW, DPZ, Rec & Parks Neither DPZ nor BoE as requested
Supported by citizens? Yes,
overwhelmingly
All but affordable housing coalitions
Supported by other Council members? Opposition from
Rigby & Yungmann*
Opposition from
Rigby & Yungmann**
Likely outcome 10/7 Tabled Tabled
* 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.”

Gosh, that’s two bets in two days!

Attend or tune in to tonight’s session at 7pm on Comcast channel 99 or Verizon channel 44 or by streaming https://cc.howardcountymd.gov/Online-Tools/Watch-Us

—-And meet me on the high road,

Susan

How Come ‘The Perfect’ Is So Often the Enemy Of ‘The Good’?

How Come ‘The Perfect’ Is So Often the Enemy Of ‘The Good’?

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)

There are 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).

Some 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.”

Doom and gloom, doom and gloom, doom and gloom……..

It isn’t 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

https://www.baltimoresun.com › maryland › howard › cng-ho-oped-guarn…

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. 

https://www.facebook.com/councilwomancmr/videos/979601355725063/

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 construction.

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 delayed.

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.
  • Don’t 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.
  • If you love dense barren development, feel free to move YOUR family into some.

For HoCo Department Heads and staffs:

  • Show the Council the respect and the courtesy of showing up when requested at work sessions.
  • Come 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.

For Council members:

  • 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! 

For me:

  • 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

Let the Council know what you think about CB-42 (councilmail@howardcountymd.gov) and meet me on the high road,

Susan

Death Grip on Optimism

Death Grip on Optimism

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,

Susan

Rested, Renewed, and Ready for the Next Round

Rested, Renewed, and Ready for the Next Round

I certainly enjoyed a welcome break for the last five weeks. I took advantage of the lack of HoCo legislative activity to step back for rest and renewal.  (Granted, I DID attend the Installation of our new Executive and Council members, testify at two Listening Sessions and the budget hearing, and attempt to testify before the Board of Appeals; but that seemed child’s play compared to the rigors of Council legislative sessions or Planning Board meetings.)  Before I jump into complete HoCo-immersion-activism-mode again I decided to ease in by reviewing some previous postings and stats.

Listed below for your re-reading or reading pleasure are my top five most- read posts from 2018. You may find they also help YOU to gear back up for the excitement of addressing some of HoCo’s top issues. The election may be behind us, but the issues remain……

Resolve to be an active participant in 2019—and meet me on the high road,

Susan

#1.  From Sept. 10, 2018   http://howcome.md/how-come-little-people-lose-while-big-people-win/

#2.  From July 6, 2018     http://howcome.md/how-come-the-primaries-produced-some-surprises/

#3.  From Nov. 26, 2018   http://howcome.md/the-race-is-on/

#4.  From Sept. 1, 2018   http://howcome.md/wefloodtoo/

#5. From April 4, 2018    http://howcome.md/deja-poo-an-introduction/

The Race is On

The Race is On

The race for more and more development is picking up speed.  Need proof that it is not just my imagination?  Glance at the upcoming pre-submission meetings and hearings periodically at https://data.howardcountymd.gov/Search_Plans/Search_Plans_Web.aspx.

In my opinion, as a long time resident, under current conditions the race is not a fair one. The rules, if they can be called that, greatly favor developers. Citizens are left in the dust wondering what happened?  What happened to the forests and the hillsides and the historic properties? What happened to all the things that attracted me to Howard County in the first place? What happened to the schools? How come I’m spending so much time sitting in traffic?

Residents are paying more attention, at least now and again, in an effort to slow development to allow infrastructure and facilities to catch up. They are also demanding more “breathing room” and planned open spaces rather than the scraps which are truly not buildable. Many are not accepting of the push for urbanization and are expressing it at the ballot box.

Developers are frantically racing ahead with plans in order to avoid proposed changes which they correctly foresee could

  • increase delays on their desired construction start dates
  • add to the school and other APFO fees they must pay to provide adequate public facilities for their new developments
  • decrease opportunities for maximum density/maximum profits with changes in regulations

It’s not unexpected that developers would prefer to continue the current operating conditions and profit margins in which:

  • the misinterpretation of the words “property rights” eliminates common sense best practices in favor of the all-holy maximum density.
  • HoCo developers pay significantly less than surrounding counties to cover the impact of their development yet use our school system as their major marketing tool.
  • the ambiguous development regulations permit them to ultimately do whatever they’d like despite the negative impact on the environment and residents’ quality of life.
  • Developers and their attorneys can recite their practiced mantra that it’s ALL LEGAL as written (the extreme density, the incompatibility with existing neighborhoods, the lack of truly effective storm water management, etc.) –because most of our codes were written by the developer’s attorneys in the first place.

Change is a comin’.  What are the PENDING changes that COULD help make the race a little more fair?

New thresholds on school overcrowding

  • Developers know they can be delayed up to three years if elementary or middle schools are overcrowded— currently defined as at 115% of capacity. But under the new APFO law the thresholds for delay will soon be 105% of capacity for elementary schools, 110% for middle schools, and new to the mix-115% of capacity for High Schools, HSs had previously not been considered at all. But with some HSs currently exceeding 147% and new HSs costing approximately $90 million to build, it is clear this MUST change.

Increases in school impact fees (and other APFO fees) developers must pay to provide adequate public facilities for their new developments

  • Unfortunately some have put forth that our State Legislators must authorize any increase in fees which HoCo charges, although others argue that we have the right to do so as a charter county. The former thought prevails and regrettably two legislative sessions has passed with NO relief! Whether you believe that “the third time is the charm” or not, you should attend the Legislative hearing this evening (Monday, Nov. 26) to express your opinion on the proposed bill to do so.***See details at the end .

Howard County DPZ is beginning the HoCode Rewrite, a process to modernize and unify the County’s development regulations under a single, comprehensive Unified Development Code that will make the regulations simpler for residents and stakeholders to understand and use.

  • Citizens will need to take an active part throughout the process to assure that developer campaign contributions don’t skew the results. Environmentalists and activists in neighboring Prince George’s County appear unhappy with the results of their code changes under the direction of Clarion Associates, the same contractor producing HoCo’s.

But why is the race to the finish line so intense right now? Numerous possible explanations come to mind:

  • The trifecta of changes listed above, possibly converging within the next 2 years, creates additional uncertainty and unpredictability for ever-declining available land in the state’s second smallest jurisdiction.
  • The new County Executive elect ran on a platform heavily prioritizing our schools and the environment and correcting issues contributing to Ellicott City flooding. If he is true to his word, those priorities could make development a slower, more thoughtful process—one that proactively preserves Targeted Ecological Areas and that recognizes that over-development and development without comprehensive planning is a threat to us all.
  • There is a totally inexperienced County Council assuming their positions next week, perhaps making it easier to ‘confront or confuse’. (Though I’m inclined to think we have a couple of tough cookies on the new Council who won’t be content with responses from DPZ staff like, “That’s how we’ve always done it.”) You go girls!

Developers know the public has been distracted by the election and the start of the holiday season. Citizens are less likely to attend Pre-submission meetings on new developments, new capital projects, local area plans and DRRAs, speeding them through the process. I hope to find time to share specific examples in a future blog.

***But for the moment, let’s revisit tonight’s all important hearing held by our HoCo state senators and delegates.

Here is a link to the actual proposed legislation on increasing school impact fees:  https://www.howardcountymd.gov/LinkClick.aspxfileticket=yJYqPwm3_zA%3d&tabid=2120&portalid=0

Here is a link to the citizen group which has been shepherding improvements to APFO along:

https://hocoapfo.blogspot.com/2018/11/howard-county-school-facilities.html?fbclid=IwAR2UmfvfAjVZ9x9DN1b77TFdoMy6xA_RuwJ1A3aE5LcY-8EJK3RwF-ln2AM

In order to speak at the meeting you must sign up in person between 7:00 and 7:20 pm outside the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.  The meeting will begin at 7:30. Citizens will have just 3 minutes to address any and all proposed bills on the agenda, which includes one on redistricting (although no details are as yet available at the time of my writing).

I hope that you –and our newly elected county officials will be in attendance. I will NOT want to see you at HoCo budget hearings in the future asking for miscellaneous community-specific or activity-specific amenities if you cannot make the effort to show up for the opportunity to INCREASE developer charges for adequate facilities. If developers are charged their fair, market based share, then requests could be budgeted for without the need to increase property taxes!

Prepare for the hearing now—and meet me on the high road,

Susan