MoCo to replace trees that development displaced

Montgomery County is embarking on a campaign to replant trees around the county. From Bethesda Now:

Montgomery County on Monday began replacing some of the trees that have been lost to “mansionization” projects over the past year.

Because of the number of trees removed and not replaced independently by developers, the county has plenty of money left to do a lot more.

County officials gathered to celebrate the planting of 37 shade trees at a low-rise apartment complex on the edge of Rock Creek Park in Chevy Chase.

The trees were paid for by developers who removed trees on private single-family home properties, in most cases to build home additions, renovations or new “mini-mansions.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett’s controversial “Tree Canopy” law, which targets the loss of trees during those home rebuild projects, went into effect on March 1, 2014.

By March 1, 2015, the county had collected about $350,000 in payments, according to Laura Miller, the forest conservation coordinator with the county’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Developers who opt not to replace a lost tree are required to pay $250 into the county fund, meaning roughly 1,400 trees were removed to make way for mansionization or other small-scale development over the first year the law was in effect.

“There are always people who don’t quite appreciate the value and they might take down a few too many trees on their property,” Councilmember Hans Riemer said at the event Monday. “The appropriate response from the county I think is to continue to plant more and more trees and so we’re always strengthening our canopy rather than losing it.”

The Department of Environmental Protection is beginning to take those $250 payments and plant new trees as close to the lost trees as possible.

In pushing for the law, DEP officials used overhead photos of Bethesda neighborhoods to show what they said was a substantial loss of tree canopy over time because of prevalent mansionization and home teardown projects.

Small building companies, many that do business in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, said the county shouldn’t be able to legislate how trees on private property are treated. Conservationists alleged the building industry was spreading misinformation about the bill.

The trees planted Monday in Chevy Chase — a combination of London planetrees, honey locusts, elms, white oaks and red maples — were planted in spots where storm damage had caused older trees to fail.

All have the potential to grow to at least 50 feet tall. Leggett said the trees will provide environmental benefits and shade to cool parking lots, playgrounds, walkways and apartment buildings, as well as some single-family homes.

“We are serious about preserving and protecting the environment,” Leggett said.

Jessica Jones, an outreach manager working on the Tree Montgomery program, said DEP on Monday also planted its first two replacement trees at single-family homes.

The department is developing a new website, TreeMontgomery.org, which will provide information on how to apply for trees funded by the law and when and where the county plans to plant.

Jones said DEP has had more than 70 requests so far from property owners, based largely on promotion the department did at an event last month in Silver Spring.

The department also evaluates tree loss from storm damage and reaches out to property owners, which is how they ended up at the Round Hill Apartments in Chevy Chase.

Leggett, Riemer, DEP officials and advocates for the law did a ceremonial tree planting.

“That tree canopy legislation was incredibly contentious and I thought it was really remarkable that the county executive brought that forward,” Riemer said. “We all survived. The legislation is law and I think it really provided for a big step forward for all of us.”

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Montgomery County clears hiring IG staffer who falsified reports at federal job

The Washington Post published an article by reporter Bill Turque on the clearing of the Montgomery County Inspector General to hire an employee who pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge while a U.S. Commerce Department employee:

Montgomery Inspector General Edward Blansitt said the county attorney has affirmed the propriety of hiring a part-time assistant who pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge as a criminal investigator for the Commerce Department.

Blansitt, who heads the independent office responsible for rooting out waste and mismanagement, told the County Council in December that he had asked County Attorney Marc Hansen “whether he concurs with my analysis of the propriety of hiring Ms. [Rachel] Ondrik” in October 2013. Blansitt said he would “rely on his advice.”

Hansen, who responded to Blansitt with a letter on March 16, declined this week to release a copy, citing attorney-client privilege. Blansitt, in an interview, declined to waive that privilege.

“It’s not advice about a matter that is a public matter,” said Blansitt, who worked with Ondrik at Commerce before taking the Montgomery post in 2011.

Blansitt sought legal guidance after a Washington Post story raised questions about Ondrik’s background. Ondrik pleaded guilty in 2013 to submitting nearly $40,000 in false travel vouchers and time cards claiming hours she had not worked as a Commerce investigator.

She was sentenced to eight months in federal prison, but the sentence was thrown out on appeal because it was deemed excessive. Ondrik was allowed to withdraw her guilty plea on procedural grounds. Blansitt hired her after the plea was withdrawn.

Under a subsequent plea agreement with prosecutors, the travel-fraud charge was dropped. Last May, Ondrik pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor of falsely claiming to have worked several days at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a Commerce agency.

She received a year’s probation, a $20,000 fine and 60 hours of community service.

Ondrik, who declined to comment, works part time in Blansitt’s office at an hourly rate of $42.

Blansitt said that because his office conducts audits and analysis — not criminal investigations — Ondrik would not be serving as a law enforcement officer or giving sworn testimony in court. He said she was an appropriate addition to his staff because of her investigative and interviewing skills.

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M-83 highway: MoCo chooses most environmentally harmful plan

The fix is in for the Mid-County Highway Extended, known as M-83. Those who had hoped for a stronger outcome for transit and the environment in upcounty Montgomery County were disappointed by a study released by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) which instead chose the routing alternative having the most detrimental impact on wetlands, parkland, and tree canopy – Alternative 9A. M-83 is proposed to run between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg.

In response, the Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended Coalition (TAME) sent out the following letter from the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) to oppose the highway:

Following pressure from the Montgomery County Council, county transportation officials have released the results of their 11-year-long study to decide the best place to put the controversial and unnecessary Mid-County Highway (M-83) between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg.

Now we know why county transportation officials sat on their 11-year-long study: they have picked the worst option in terms of impact on parks and natural resources.

The study, which chooses the county’s “preferred alternative”, is a necessary next step that includes EPA evaluation of environmental impacts. The preferred alternative, “Alternative 9A”, is an alignment first proposed nearly 50 years ago and before most of our environmental laws were written.

If built, Alternative 9A would impact:

  • 2.5 acres of wetlands
  • 5 acres of flood plain 
  • 49 acres of park land 
  • 17 acres of farm land
  • 72 acres of forest.

It will also cost the county well over $350 million dollars.

During the review period, the EPA raised serious concerns about Alternative 9A, and expressed its opinion that Alternative 5 (upgrades to existing Route 355) combined with Alternative 2 (traffic system management) would satisfy the transportation needs while being the least environmentally damaging option. 

Indeed, Alternative 5 alone performed equally well, and in some cases better, on traffic tests than the far more damaging Alternative 9A. Moreover, MCDOT never evaluated Bus Rapid Transit on Route 355 despite hundreds of community requests and the adoption in 2013 of the countywide rapid transit network.

Together with local road improvements, rapid transit on Route 355 is an excellent alternative to M-83 for Clarksburg, Germantown, and Gaithersburg residents. 

We are urging the County Executive and County Council to reject the costly and damaging M-83 highway, and to work with community members to craft an alternative that eases upcounty commutes, while better protecting neighborhoods, parks, and natural resources.

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Council majority sponsors mega gas law revision

Six Councilmembers sponsored a bill yesterday to significantly strengthen regulations for siting of large gas stations in Montgomery County.  According to the March 20th Council legislative memorandum, Zoning Text Amendment 15-07 would increase the mandatory setback to 500 feet and “would also add dwelling units and environmental attributes to the list of sensitive land uses from which a minimum distance would be required.

The move comes two weeks after the people’s historic victory against a special zoning exception for the Westfield Wheaton Costco mega gas station that would have been sited 118 feet from single-family residences adjacent to an outdoor community swimming pool and a school for medically fragile children with special needs, including respirators and oxygen tanks.  The five-year land use battle culminated in a hearing that ran for 37 days and generated 9,500 pages of transcripts, hundreds of exhibits, and thousands more pages in testimony and research materials providing ample evidence for legislators and policymakers to enact sensible regulations that would protect all communities when siting new mega gas stations. Continue reading

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Westfield Drops Wheaton Stake: Global retail giant divests 47.4% of Wheaton Plaza to residential developer

Westfield Group, an Australian retail real estate giant, announced sale of 47.4% interest in Wheaton Plaza to O’Connor Capital Partners, a privately held residential developer. Local observers expect the mall’s eastern half converted to high-rise apartments following recent zoning changes.

Since buying the mall in 1997 from the Gudelsky family, Westfield Wheaton became a focus for Montgomery County’s economic development largesse, so news of company’s divestment come at a bad time for an economic development department already under scrutiny following this week’s revelation that Marriott International is planning a move despite receiving $58 million in taxpayer-funded incentives since 1999. In recent years, this bigger-is-better-and-biggest-is-best approach to economic development was epitomized by Westfield – a single company receiving more than one third of Economic Development Fund dollars – more than whole industries, like IT and BioTech, combined. Continue reading

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MoCo ethics panel will allow Costco shareholder and Sierra Club member to rule on Costco mega-gas station

In two decisions published online this week, the Montgomery County Ethics Commission cleared both Board of Appeals members who recused themselves last January from ruling on Costco Wholesale’s bid for a special zoning exception to build a gargantuan gas station in Wheaton 118 feet away from single-family residences.

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Ike’s Legacy?

NO ITAWhat local county executive wants his signature achievement to be the passage of a bill back-doored through the legislative process? Without consultation with his county council, let alone the citizens and taxpayers of his county? A bill that as of this writing has garnered more than 1,000 signatures on an electronic petition, with comments like “this is not fair”…”this was a sneaky power grab with taxpayer money”…”there is no accountability to the county residents”…”we deserve a say!”?

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Hearing Examiner recommends DENIAL of Costco gas station in Westfield Wheaton Mall

The Montgomery County Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings recommends DENIAL of the Costco gas station in Westfield Wheaton Mall.  The memo is available here: S-2863,_Costco_Formal_Report_Notification_Memo.  The full text of the Hearing Examiner’s lengthy report and its appendices is available here.

BiggerPictureUpdated2014The Hearing Examiner joins the Planning staff and the Planning Board in recommending to the Board of Appeals denial of the Costco gas station.  For years, as Montgomery County government gave a $4 million taxpayer subsidy to Westfield Group, residents have sought support from the County Council as well as state legislators to protect their health by preventing placement of mega-gas stations within 1,000 feet of homes, schools and recreational facilities.  These measures failed – leaving the community to fend for themselves throughout the longest-running zoning hearing in Montgomery County history – leaving citizens to band together as the Stop Costco Gas Coalition.

The Board of Appeals will make the final decision in the last of the Special Exception process.

happy holidays

 

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County Clean Water Permit Renewal Delayed

moco stormwaterA major step forward in implementing the Clean Water Act for Montgomery County is facing delays at the state level. Issued by Maryland Department of the Environment on behalf of EPA, the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit has to be renewed and revised by February 15th but, according to government sources, the deadline will not be met.

An enforcement mechanism commonly known as the MS-4, the permit has to be revised every five years and governs everything that flows through storm drains into the County’s rivers and streams with the primary goal of restoring and maintaining chemical, physical, and biological integrity. Stormwater is the MS-4’s focus – the prime contributor to degraded state of water bodies in Montgomery County – that becomes polluted runoff when it falls on impervious surfaces and picks up contaminants such as lawn chemicals, pet waste, car oil, sewage, sediment, and trash. In turn, development and sprawl continue to convert more forests and farms into impervious roofs and pavement that generate more stormwater – the fastest growing source of pollution to the beleaguered Chesapeake Bay.

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Montgomery’s Green Construction Woes: Environmental benefits from proposed sustainable building code uncertain.

GraphicIgCCMontgomery County’s adoption of the International Green Construction Code is about to get controversial after environmental activists discovered proposed amendments that, if passed by the County Council this fall, will essentially gut this groundbreaking piece of legislation.

Maryland was the nation’s first state to embrace the IgCC back in 2011, and now Montgomery is the first county to adopt and implement the new regulatory framework – hailed as “pro-business and pro-environment” and meant to supplant the voluntary and expensive LEED certification as the first code to include sustainability requirements for the entire construction project and site – from design to construction, operation, maintenance and beyond.

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