Talks of Proposed Housing Split City Council

[Update 9/30/2010: This post has been updated with comments from District 4 Council woman Denise Mitchell]

The proposal to build a 6-story, 334-unit student housing on the current Book Exchange property may still be in its very primitive stage, yet some City Council members have already started to take sides on this development. Interestingly enough, not every resident or City council member is against the proposal, as the recent media reports (such as this and this) may have suggested.

Take for example District 1 council member Chris Nagle. She actually supports the idea of the proposed housing. Ms. Nagle says she does not agree with the residents in Old Town who have expressed concerns that the student housing at the current Maryland Book Exchange location will bring additional students into Old Town and create noise and traffic concerns for existing residents.  “The project will not result in an increased enrollment at the University of Maryland. Student housing at the Maryland Book Exchange location will provide students who want to live within walking distance of UMD and downtown College Park with an alternative to living in Old Town.  I thought that was what the residents of Old Town wanted: for students to move out of existing single family and into multi-unit student housing dwellings.  The developer is working with residents and has sought their input into the commercial component of the project.”Ms Nagle said explaining her position.

The other District 1 council member Patrick Wojahn sits completely on the other side of the aisle on this. He is with the city residents – those living in the south and also in the north in his district. “I have a lot of concerns about this proposal. Whether I agree with those residents (in Old Town) or not, I would want other council members to support me if the residents of north College Park were opposed to a project, and I want to do the same for the residents of Old Town.”– says Mr. Wojahn.

Mr. Wojahn is concerned that this new project would over saturate the market and create challenges for the entire student housing along US 1. “the City and the University have worked together to build a lot of new student housing along the US 1 corridor over the past couple of years, and at this point, we do not know whether that will satisfy the demand for student housing..”– said Mr. Wojahn.

The District 3 council woman Stephanie Stullich echoes Mr. Wojahn’s assessments on this oversaturation part.  According to her estimation, new student housing construction from 2000 to 2010 added a total of 7,057 new beds for students, including 2,892 on campus and 4,533 off campus.  Those figures include 1,146 beds in two new buildings that opened this fall (View 2 and Mazza).  In addition, three student housing buildings currently under construction will add 2,263 beds in fall 2011 (Starview, Varsity, and Oakland Hall).

Ms. Stullich wants to see the proposed development to house something different – “a grocery store like Trader Joe’s, a sit-down family restaurant, or housing targeted at University faculty and staff and young professionals could be a good fit for the site” – she commented. “I’d also like to see the old Book Exchange as part of the new development” – she added.

Mr. Wojahn agrees with Ms. Stullich on the diversity part of the development in downtown area to create what he says a true college town atmosphere. “I feel we need a diverse mix of housing opportunities. With the rest of the new M Square project coming online sometime in the next couple of years, I feel there is a need for young professional housing, and I think it would be useful for the developer to consider making all of this new development young professional housing instead of just student housing.  Bringing more young professionals in the area would lead to a better market for higher quality restaurants and more diverse retail downtown.”Added Mr. Wojahn.

Mr. Wojahn also sympathizes with concerns of the Old Town residents. “I understand the concerns of the residents, and I want to support the residents who have concerns about this project coming so close to their neighborhoods. “

Ms. Stullich, who represents the residents living in the area near the proposed development, went further in explaining the concerns of the local residents. “This project would double the number of undergraduate students living in Old Town, which is the neighborhood that already has the highest concentration of undergraduates and struggles the most with tensions between students and older residents.  The noise problem is pretty extreme, not just from the parties but also from hundreds of young people wandering the streets at all hours of the day and night looking for parties.  And then there are the problems with vandalism and public urination – it all seems to go with the wild party atmosphere.  It makes it sometimes a hard place for families to raise their children.  The noise enforcement officers and police have a hard time dealing with this situation as it is – we don’t need to make this problem even harder to handle.”

Ms. Stullich added – “It is not in students’ best interest to make Old Town so difficult for older residents to live in that they all move out.  Older residents help improve the safety of the neighborhood, because of Neighborhood Watch, because they know how to work with the police.  They watch out for the safety of their student neighbors.  Allowing this to become exclusively a student neighborhood would make the student residents vulnerable to even more crime.”

Ms. Stullich brushed off criticism against the opposition to the housing as “anti-student”. “I don’t think there’s an anti-student hysteria from me and the residents who oppose the development. We accept that students live in our neighborhoods and always will.  We’re simply trying to seek a balance.”

She said she likes what RTCP is doing in promoting smart growth. “I’m an environmentalist, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-development.  I have been a strong supporter of all of the other recent student housing projects.  But it is important to have the right mix of development in the right places.” – she said.

Her counterpart in the district 3, council member Mark Cook supports the proposed development. ”  “It’s hard to understand why a council member would support a project that so many of his constituents believe would harm their quality of life.”– Ms. Stullich added with frustration. In an interview with the Diamondback, Mr. Cook said he is excited about the vision for the site, as “it represents a smart growth project that will improve the overall use of the land – much of which is now a sprawling parking lot.”

District 2 Council member Bob Catlin hasn’t seen a proposal for the project and says it’s premature to judge the project. “The only thing we (the City Council) have been asked to do by the developer is to allow the developer to pay a parking fee-in-lieu for about 175 parking spaces prior to the proposal being presented.  Some council members want to decide the fee-in-lieu at a later time.”

When asked about UMd’s letter of support for the project he said “It (the UMd) did send a letter- now I believe the University has (or it soon will) rescind that support.  RTCP knows about the original letter, but perhaps not about a possible reconsideration of that position.” Mr. Catlin added.

District 4 councilman Marcus Afzali also wants to see more before making his mind supporting  the proposed development, but he has sympathies for the residents’ concerns. “Right now community members are meeting with the developer so I don’t want to say too much because I want to give the residents of Old Town a chance to see what they can work out with them.  That being said I think the residents of Old Town have valid concerns that must be addressed before I would be willing to get on board.” – Marcus said to me in an email.

Afzali’s counterpart in District 4, Denise Mitchell opposes the proposed development. “I want to be clear that I was opposed to the concept of the project from the beginning” – Ms. Mitchell told me in her email. ” It is my view that there are many existing projects currently underway for the sole purpose of adding student housing off campus and in close proximity to the university.  Also, I felt as though the residents should have been conferred with before presenting this to Mayor and Council.” – Ms. Mitchell added.

The City Mayor Andrew Fellows also shares the residents’ concerns, but wants to hold off on taking a side. “I have thoughts but probably want to save them for public consumption.  I want to explore the matter in public at City Hall.  I will briefly note, though, that I do share the concerns of the residents.” – Mr. Fellows added.

Despite the divergent views from council members, the ultimate decision about the project will come from the County Council.  County councilman Eric Olson, who represents the area, has indicated that he has concerns about the development. When asked about UMd’s support for the development, Mr. Olson said “My understanding is that there are multiple perspectives on campus, so I do not read their letter as the final University position. And ultimately, the University does not make the decision on the project. “

Meeting on Book Exchange Development Tonight

Please mark your calendars for
Monday, September 27th
7:30 PM
City Hall Council Chambers

A small committee of Old Town residents was set up to speak with the developer of the proposed Book Exchange Housing Project. That committee consists of Steve Brayman (former Mayor), Stephanie Stullich (city councilwoman for the area), Bob Schnabel (Stullich’s Husband), Chris Aubry (president of the Old Town Civic Assn.), and Bob McFadden. Not surprisingly, the group would like to see the project go in a different direction. That committee is meeting with the larger Old Town Civic Association to formulate an official neighborhood position that they will convey to the city council.

Email message from Old Town Civic Association President Chris Aubry:

Per the developer’s invitation, representatives from Old Town met with Ilya
Zusin twice since our meeting on August 25th to discuss development proposed
for the Maryland Book Exchange site.

Our meetings have ended and the committee would like to share its findings
with you so the Civic Association can determine its collective position. I
will then draft a formal letter to the City Council and mayor to notify them
formally of the Civic Association’s position.

See the staff at the window for a parking pass.

Please pardon the short notice but timing is tight and we must voice our
opinion so the city council can include it in their consideration.

Chris Aubry
President, OTCA

DC Shares Bikes With Arlington, How About College Park?

D.C. commuters have been sharing bikes in their streets for some time, but starting yesterday that program is expanding to include Arlington.

Funded by the U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) the program, called Capital Bikeshare , is the largest such program in the country.

According to officials, 49 stations are operational and about five are being activated each day, allowing users to pick up a bike in one location and return it at any station. The system will feature about 1,100 bicycles at 114 stations in the District and Arlington. Out of that, there are 100 stations in D.C. and 14 in Arlington, where riders can pick up and leave bicycles.

The program is currently offering a $25 discount off the $75 annual membership fee. Monthly memberships are available for $25, and daily memberships will be available at the bike stations for $5.

Though Arlington gets connected with this bike share program today, it looks like other neighboring cities like College Park will have to wait a long time to ride on this network. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments(MWCOG) failed to win a $10 million for bikeshare expansion that it had applied through a federal stimulus program called TIGER. The City of College Park and UMd jointly applied for that grant application. The original TIGER application asked for 2,250 bikes at 225 stations in DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax City, Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, Hyattsville, and National Harbor, in addition to the 1,000 the District is already funding. A second similar application is currently under review of USDOT, but it’s unlikely to be funded.

[Source: The Wahington Post, FoxDC, RTCP, GGW]

UMD Supports Book Exchange Development

A letter we got our hands on from UMD VP of Administrative Affairs to District 3 County Councilman Eric Olson indicates that UMD supports the Book Exchange Redevelopment Plan. In the past, UMD’s support has been a make or break for student housing projects in the city. The letter, dated August 25th, doesn’t specifically cite support for the undergraduate portion of the project, but does imply support for the plan in its entirety given its inclusion of housing for graduate students and visiting faculty. They’d like to see a Fall 2013 delivery. How do you read into the contents of this letter?

—>UMD’s Letter to Eric Olson

A Better Project is Always Just Around the Corner

“We need to create a housing balance and start attracting redevelopment that will help spur a greater variety of restaurants, stores and housing for professionals, graduate students, as well as undergraduates.” ~ Eric Olson, Dist. 3 County Councilman

“When it comes to development, it’s important to have a balance. At this point, we’ve done so much to address [the demand for student housing], I’m worried about going too far in that direction.” ~ Stephanie Stullich, City Councilwoman

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That’s right, a better project is always just around the corner or so we’re so often told by our political leaders when it comes to the redevelopment of Route 1. It’s a theme we’ve examined time and time again on this site and a worldview that’s repeated by politicians and everyday citizens around the country over and over again during the development review process. Those sentiments become stronger in existing communities where the stakes are high and NIMBYism, complex economic and community impacts, and us-vs.-them thinking can hijack the dialogue and take our eye off the ball. The controversy erupting over the proposed redevelopment of the Maryland Book Exchange is no exception.

City Councilwoman Stephanie E. Stullich said Tuesday that “building more student housing has been a priority” but noted major new and planned projects will add more than 4,300 beds in off-campus housing within the next few years. ~ From the Washington Examiner (9/14/2010)

The local political establishment has been taken by the idea that there is too much student housing being built in College Park and that it’ll ultimately be at the peril of other types of development that can bring variety and interest to the community. This line of thinking, if taken to it’s logical conclusion, could really destroy the momentum of redevelopment in the city. It’s a mindset and position that purports to understand what the community needs, but ignores that projects need to be economically viable in order to be achievable. When the Book Exchange went up for sale last spring, it wasn’t high end condos, retail and office developers, or boutique hotels inquiring about the property. It was national and regional student housing developers seeking to cash in on a potential for a smart growth, urban infill redevelopment student housing project just across from UMD’s south gate.

Why are we surprised that a private developer has come along, put this property under contract and proposed a student housing project completely in line with the zoning for the property? What precedent does that set for the local development community if our politics are completely at odds with the policies on the books? What right does anyone have to decide what types of people can fill what types of property when the public has already gotten together and agreed on the intensity of development allowed at a site?

route1illustrativeplanIt should come as no surprise to anyone that a student housing proposal is exactly what we got at the Book Exchange. RTCP is not making the argument that it’s an unreasonable public policy goal to want to attract professionals and graduate students to downtown College Park that will in turn diversity the retail offerings. What’s unreasonable is to expect such a housing proposal to materialize against the realities of the market. UMD in partnership with the City and County are embarking on a highly ambitious, publicly-assisted and financed project with the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative. That public assistance along with the sheer size of East Campus makes new housing products in downtown marketable to the general population and therefore financially feasible. There is no such opportunity in place for a purely private project like the one being proposed for the Book Exchange site. What this property does have working to its advantage is its location in an Impact Fee Waiver zone that gives incentives for private developers to build housing for University of Maryland Students in specified areas near campus. Let’s work from the proposal in front of us today instead of holding out for a pure high-end apartment building or condo proposal on the site, which may not materialize for 5 years or more if ever.

We do believe it’s a worthy end to get non-undergraduate housing and other types of retail in College Park. That’s only achievable with a)public financing or b)a mix of housing in one project that includes a sizable portion of student beds which make the project financially feasible. On this project, the developer Ilya Zusin has already committed to marketing roughly 17% of this project to non-undergrads. That 17% would be housed in a self-contained building to the rear of the site. Given that Zusin qualifes for the school facilities impact fee waiver, which reduces his development costs substantially, we think it’s worth looking at ways that he can blunt community criticism and set aside some portion of the other 83% of beds (255 units) specifically for graduate students for some period during the annual leasing process once the complex is built. This arrangement could be similar to how the Mazza Grandmarc operates, but flaws in that system should be examined and addressed to ensure graduate students do ultimately occupy the units intended for them.

On the retail side, Zusin seems legitimately interested in delivering some sort of small grocer to the complex. We suggest that he look at ways of attracting the Maryland Food Co-op, currently located in the Student Union, into the ground floor of his complex along Yale Avenue. These would be good faith efforts on the part of the developer to avoid having the barrel through the county planning process without political support. These efforts would hopefully avoid the need for a lengthy and expensive (for the developer and county) court fight. The Maryland Book Exchange plans to lease the 10,000 square feet of retail on Route 1. It’s great that we can retain this local retailer in the community.

Ultimately, its worth remembering that student housing doesn’t create more students. UMD’s undergraduate population is stable and is actually lower now than it used to be. Multiple private student housing projects have been and are currently being built in College Park. Once complete, they will effectively drain many of the student renters from single family home neighborhoods. Since many of these units are designated student housing, they are separate from the larger rental market and rents will have to be low in order for beds to fill up. Yes, there will still be some students left in neighborhoods, but there will be a dramatic locational shift. Students get cheaper, better housing in a vibrant urban corridor. Neighborhoods get students out and into a slim, transit-ready section of the city along Route 1 as well as access to new retail. Everyone wins.

“Possibilities to add convenience, intensity and cheer in cities… are limitless” ~ Jane Jacobs

City Councilwoman Stephanie E. Stullich said Tuesday that “building more student housing has been a priority” but noted major new and planned projects will add more than 4,300 beds in off-campus housing within the next few years.

Read more at the Washington Examiner: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/local/College-Park-student-housing-development-meets-resistance-860399-102906834.html#ixzz0zbvK6200

Olson, Stullich, NIMBYs Oppose Book Exchange Housing Plan

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“My initial reaction is that they’re not going to be able to build student housing at this site,” he said. “I think that the space could be better used.” ~ Eric Olson, Dist. 3 County Councilman

Back in July, the Diamondback had an article talking about development plans to turn the Book Exchange lot into student housing.  After reading the College Park Patch and speaking with County Councilman Eric Olson and the developer Ilya Zusin, we got a better image of what is being proposed – a 6-story, 334-unit primarily student apartment building with 14,400 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. We also got a sense of the politics that are beginning to erupt around this high profile downtown CP project that’s proposed just across the street from the front entrance to UMD. These politics could very well thwart the project all-together.

The proposal comprises 109 units geared towards visiting professors, young professionals, and graduate students (mainly singles with some doubles) and 225 marketed to undergraduates (mainly quads). While proposed as one building, the development would read like two with different facades and lobbies if constructed. There would be about 830 dedicated student beds all housed within the part of the site closest to Route 1. The 109 unit building (roughly 170 beds) would have a different entrance and be located at the rear of the site backing up to Yale Avenue. 10,000 square feet of the retail space would be taken up by the Book Exchange itself with frontage on Route 1. Another store would locate on the College Avenue side.


View Larger Map

According to the Patch and other sources, a small group of vocal residents are concerned about the addition of hundreds of new students in Old Town. They fear increased noise and traffic. District 3 County Councilman and College Park smart growth champion Eric Olson, who ultimately determines what takes place on the site, seems to be leaning towards the view of long term residents who oppose student housing at the site. That’s a surprising position for Olson given the pro-student and smart growth platform that swept him into office. Some of Olson’s non-student constituents turned out for a meeting August 25th in Old Town College Park and stated their preference to see a “Trader Joe’s, a boutique hotel, or even apartments aimed at area professionals” on the site rather than student housing.

While we agree that it’s less than ideal that every residential product being built in College Park these days is student housing, it’s difficult to deny the smart growth implications of such an infill project. The site is literally across the street from the main entrance to UMD at the corner of Route 1 and College Ave. It’s also difficult to ignore the precedent being set here. While projects like this can always be killed one way or another politically, there is really no legal ground to oppose it under the current zoning regime. This project conforms completely with the spirit and language of the Route 1 Sector Plan that was just updated by the County Council this summer. Politicians don’t need to get into the business of deciding who can live where; especially given the character of established zoning and housing incentives in College Park. I believe it sets a bad precedent if Olson ultimately quashes the first development proposed under the updated Route 1 Sector Plan. We can’t let latent and unfounded anti-student housing hysteria stand in the way of smart growth in College Park.

UMD has the wherewithall and momentum to build the non-student housing on East Campus that Olson and others desire for the community. One private developer with a 2.6-acre site does not. Indeed, UMD is refusing to build any undergraduate beds in its East Campus Redevelopment Initiative and will be bulldozing 650-beds of affordable undergraduate student housing over the next 5 years to make way for that project. UMD intends to infuse a critical mass of retail and high end residential that can draw in young professionals with the East campus Redevelopment Initiative that Olson and others desire. As more student high rises come online, the Old Town neighborhood will begin get drained of its student residents and houses will likely turn over to non-student young professional hoping to locate near the College Park metro station.
Artists' Renderings for East Campus Most recent renderings of the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative.

The location of the Book Exchange site between Fraternity Row, a group of sorority houses and the entirety of the UMD nightlife scene makes it nearly impossible to finance a true residential product for young professionals at this point. Anything that departs substantially from what the developer has proposed here simply will not be built. There is no market for it. The 109-unit non-student section was already a pretty big concession for the developer to make considering the economy.

Furthermore, to blunt criticism the developer has offered to help the city annually to expand noise and code enforcement. They’ve also agreed to get the project certified LEED Silver or Gold and build an associated 150 bike space (covered). Because of traffic concerns, they will reserve spaces for car sharing (Zip Car) and provide free bikes for students that have none. Zusin would build between 141 and 315 spaces under the project depending on if the city lets him pay fee in lieu for space in their newly constructed garage just down the road. The project will likely reduce traffic during rush hour given that almost all its residents will walk to campus or utilize Metro day-to-day. They’d be using the provided parking for car storage. To top it all off, the city currently receives $18,000 per year in property tax from the Book Exchange. They’ll receive around $250,000 annually if the project goes forward.

What exactly are we fighting against here? Tell us what you think.

UPDATE:
Sources indicate that UMD is also opposed to this project. While we’re looking for more information, their position likely stems from fear of unfilled student beds on campus due to private competition off campus. Unfortunately for students, that translates to higher rents.

Dernoga Shows No Regrets, Says Post Wrong in Reaching Hearts Matter

With County’s Primary elections only two days away, the County’s State Attorney candidate Tom Dernoga came out in defense of his role in opposing a Laurel Church ‘discrimination’ case. In 2008, a federal judge slapped the county with a 3.7 million dollars lawsuit against the Church, called Reaching Hearts.

Mr. Dernoga was serving as a county council member (District 1) when the verdict was handed over.

The 2005-2008 legal battle has lately become an interesting campaign issue for both Mr. Dernoga and his then administrative aide Mary Lehman, who is currently running as a County Council District 1 primary candidate. Ms. Lehman also opposed the Church as a West Laurel community activist.

The county council district 1 candidate Ms. Crystal Thompson criticized the opposition to the Church as “wasting county’s money“. “Those funds ($3.7 million) could have been used to prevent employee furloughs or towards providing our students free breakfast, lunch, and access to filtered water” – she added.

In a recent College Park candidate forum, Angela Alsobrooks, who is running as a County’s state Attorney candidate, also charged Mr. Dernoga on this case.  “I think you should know [that] there was a case recently where the county was held liable for $3.7 M for religious discrimination and Mr. Dernoga was named in that case involving a church [in the county],” said Alsobrooks.

Mr. Dernoga said his opposition to the case was nothing to do with “discrimination” in nature, and said it’s all about protecting citizens’ rights. “I do not regret voting to protect the drinking water source of our citizens.”– wrote Dernoga in an email to me. ” The only issue was the potential impact of the project – which did not meet zoning requirements, but which they were trying to circumvent – on the drinking water for 820,000 people. We did not say “no” to them, we said “not here”. Because of the limited development normally allowed around the Reservoir, the price of land is low. They grabbed the cheap land and then proposed a mammoth facility. Just because one says “no” does not mean one is discriminating. The merits of a proposal have to be evaluated.” –Dernoga added.

Earlier, County Council District 1 candidate Mr. Smalls rejected the argument that the issues were environmental in nature. “First, if there were environmental concerns, those issues were addressed at the time of subdivision.  The church’s application was for a water/sewer category change and all of the requirements to attach to public water and sewer were met and there was no reason to deny the application.  It should be noted that the County Executive and the county’s Department of Environmental Resources recommended that the sewer service category for the property be changed so the proposed church could connect to existing public water and sewer lines. The County Council voted to approve the change, but later reconsidered the request and rejected it after receiving comments from councilman Dernoga.” – argued Mr. Smalls.

Mr. Dernoga also argued that the Church was not an African American one. “It had African American members, but it was mixed  – like most of our churches. The Pastor, his wife and most of the Board of Trustees were white. At the time of the original vote on a Water & Sewer application, the only representatives that I had seen were white.”– said Dernoga defending his arguments.

According to the Washington Post article, the lawsuit alleges Dernoga acted because of pressure from constituents who “wanted to keep the perceived majority-African-American congregation” out of West Laurel. “In a 50-page decision, U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus affirmed the jury’s April verdict, which found that county officials used zoning regulations “to keep African American churches out of the county” and to keep such churches from expanding, an allegation the county denied in court.”– said the Post article.

The suit claimed that the West Laurel Civic Association ‘‘lobbied against the church because it is a multi-ethnic congregation from an African-American conference.” Ms. Mary Lehman served as the President of the West Laurel civic association during the course of the legal battle.

Mr. Dernoga rejected that the case is in any way “racial discrimination” in nature. “the suggestions that the decision was based on racial discrimination is false. After losing every State court case and appeal that they church filed, they went to  Federal Court and alleged racial and religious discrimination. Their racial discrimination count was based on the unproven allegation of the pastor’s wife that an unknown resident told her that the community did not want a black church moving in. there was no evidence to support this and ultimately the Count was not pursued. Contrary to what is written above, there were no statements in public hearings that community groups opposed a black church. That statement is inaccurate.”-Mr. Dernoga argued.

Mr. Dernoga also complained that the jury was not allowed to hear the mediation arguments in the case. “We offered to move them (the Church members) to any of about 20 alternative sites. They found something wrong with every site offered to them. All sites were in the same general area of the north County. There never has been an intent to ‘keep them out’. I have strong relations with many church leaders in District 1, including African American, Hindu, Seventh Day Adventist and Muslim.”  – commented Mr. Dernoga.

The lawsuit claimed the County Council and Mr. Dernoga had ‘‘a history of prejudice against churches and of using zoning ordinances to obstruct the development and limit the growth of churches in the county.”

Though he accepted the ultimate ruling as a “religious discrimination” in nature, he said the Washington Post mistakenly reported the case as a “racial discrimination”, a term he claimed the Post stopped using in latter reports. “The ultimate ruling was a finding of religious discrimination, but the Washington Post, in a hurry to get to print at the end of the day when the ruling issued, mistakenly wrote that it was based on racial discrimination – and repeated this in a story on the appeal. The Post has since stopped writing that the decision is based on racial discrimination.”

Mr. Dernoga congratulated  the church’s lawyers for convincing a jury, but he characterized the loss in this legal battle as a “bizarre example of American Jurisprudence.” Earlier, Ms. Lehman attributed the loss in this case to the work of an expert legal team from the Church. “Reaching Hearts simply hired a clever attorney who sued based on a federal law that makes it harder for the government to deny any religious institution the ability to build wherever it wants.” – she said in an interview to me.

The county primary elections will be held on September 14. Four other candidates – Angela Alsobrooks, Mark Spencer, Peggy Magee and Joseph Wright are running against Mr. Dernoga in County’s State Attorney primary position.

Smalls Shows Off Experience, Charges Lehman on Discrimination Case

After Mary Lehman, I approached the other leading County Council primary candidate Fredrick Smalls, the four term council member of the Laurel City Council.

In addition to answering my questions, he also added comments on his opponent Mary Lehman’s earlier response on a Laurel Church discrimination case. Please see that additional response at the end his interview.

As always, if you have further questions or comments on Mr. Small’s responses, please feel free to post them in the comment section at the end of the article.

I thank Mr. Smalls and other candidates for taking the time from their busy campaign schedule and responding to interview questions.

(1) There are five council candidates running in this year’s council election for District 1. Why do you think you are the best candidate in this crowded race?

A) I have the experience to lead; a strong desire to move the County forward; and the ability to make things happen for District 1. For more than 15-years I have been involved as a civic and community leader.  I began that service as president of my homeowner association and PTA president.    My service to the community broadened when I was elected to the Laurel City Council where I have served four two-year terms; two years as council president.  I have supported all aspects of public safety and helped bring Laurel to the forefront with my support of the first Emergency Services Commission.  I understand the priority of full staffing and modern training to ensure first-rate public safety capabilities.

Additionally, my hands-on experience with a tax-payer supported budget gives me direct experience managing tax-payer dollars.  I know the difficulty in stretching the dollar.  It is important to note that the City of Laurel has survived the weak economy better than most – and without furloughs or layoffs. I feel my experience is in areas the County needs most:  budgeting, emergency services, land use planning, and general management will contribute greatly to the future success of District 1 and our County. 

(2) One of your opponent candidate Mary Lehman enjoys strong endorsements from MD Delegate Joscelin Pena-Melnyk and Councilman Tom Dernoga. Do you feel that your campaign is weakened by these endorsements?

No.  I have equally strong endorsements from 21stDistrict Delegates Barbara Frush and Ben Barnes.  Additionally, I have been endorsed by the Washington Post, the Prince George’s County Gazette, the Prince George’s County Professional and Volunteer Firefighters, the Prince George’s County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, and the African Leadership Empowerment Council.  All of these organizations understand my commitment to public service, my experience as an open, honest and hardworking municipal legislator and they support my vision and plan to move our county forward.

 (3) The City of College Park does not have a police service. The city residents pay nearly $1 million to hire 6 contract police officers (3 P/T and 3F/T)from the county, because the police service from the county’s regular police PGFD is not enough. If elected, what will you do to help offset such extra cost of law enforcement from local municipalities?

The real concern I have heard has been that residents feel they are paying the additional money and they are not getting the level of service they expect.  I will focus on improving communication so the police service College Park receives is more effective.   Additionally, I will work with the mayor and council to obtain Federal Homeland Security funding and use the money for additional officers.

I think the bottom line is residents and business owners want to see that the police service is effective and responsive.  If the level of service meets the needs of the community, people may not have serious issue with the cost.

(4) The current councilman Mr. Dernoga has been criticized by some for his strong stance against redevelopment in North College Park. The implementation of “form-based codes”  in the North College Park area, north of Greenbelt Road (Rt 193) has recently been blocked as part of Rt 1 sector plan. If elected, will you continue to support Mr. Dernoga’s position?

I am committed to community conscious development where the objective is to help make what lies ahead more satisfying for people living in the community. I bring 8-years of planning and zoning experience as a member of the Laurel Planning Commission.  As a commissioner I have been involved with many development and redevelopment projects and have always encouraged community input and listened to community concerns. 

I see form-based codes as one of the tools in a planning toolbox. The quality of development outcomes are dependent on the quality and objectives of the community plan that a code implements.  The US 1 Corridor Plan has very positive aspects and since it just went into effect in July I would like to give it a little time to see if it helps brings redevelopment to US 1 Corridor.

(5) Your opponent Crystal Thompson charges against you saying “Fred Smalls experience, as a city councilman, resulted in Laurel Mall and Main Street becoming run down ghost towns instead of vibrant areas that residents want to frequent.” Any comment?.

The Laurel Commons Mall is a very important project for the City of Laurel and the surrounding community.  The City has worked extensively with the Mall owners and their attorneys to assist in advancing the project.  For example, the City approved a TIF, tax increment financing,  a public financing method that is commonly used for redevelopment and community improvement projects in municipalities, to help the owner obtain needed bank financing.  Unfortunately the instability of the financial market has made it difficult for the project to move forward.  The City has and will continue to work to see this project completed as proposed.

The City has made several streetscape improvements to Main Street and will continue to work with the Laurel Board of Trade,  business and property owners to make Laurel’s Main Street a true destination stop.

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My comment re. Mary Lehman’s response to the following question– As a West Laurel resident you (along with Mr. Dernoga) strongly opposed the construction of an African American Church in your neighborhood. A Federal Judge later awarded the Church $3.7 million in a lawsuit against the county. Critics such as State’s attorney candidate Angela Alsobrooks cite this as a discrimination case. Do you regret your opposition in the case? Please explain.

First, if there were environmental concerns, those issues were addressed at the time of subdivision.  The church’s application was for a water/sewer category change and all of the requirements to attach to public water and sewer were met and there was no reason to deny the application.  It should be noted that the County Executive and the county’s Department of Environmental Resources recommended that the sewer service category for the property be changed so the proposed church could connect to existing public water and sewer lines. The County Council voted to approve the change, but later reconsidered the request and rejected it after receiving comments from councilman Dernoga.

There were statements made by the community groups in public hearings specifically saying that the community did not want this African American church coming into the community.  The Washington Post reports that “The lawsuit alleges that Dernoga acted because of pressure from constituents who “wanted to keep the perceived majority-African-American congregation” out of West Laurel. “

The Post adds, “The jury in federal court in Greenbelt that granted the multimillion-dollar award found that the county’s actions in barring the building of the sanctuary were motivated at least in part by discriminatory intent against a religious institution.”

The court correctly ruled that the actions of Chairman Dernoga and the council was illegal and biased, and if Mary Lehman supports the county in their actions then her attitudes and motives speak for themselves. 

One on One with Mary Lehman

The upcoming County Council District 1 primary election is extremely important for our part of the county. The outcome of this election will decide much of the important issues that our city is facing, such as redevelopment across Route 1 and rising crime incidents.

Recently I’ve reached out to all 5 candidates running for the District 1  County Council election (Democratic primary).

Here are the answers to my questions I asked candidate Mary Lehman (Thanks Mary). I hope to present other candidates’ views in future.

If you have further questions or comments on Mary’s responses, please feel free to post them in the comment section at the end of this article.

Enjoy reading…

(1) There are five council candidates running in this year’s council election for District 1. Why do you think you are the best candidate in this crowded race?

I am the only candidate who has worked in county and state government, responding to and solving the kinds of every day problems about which citizens contact elected officials. I am the only candidate who knows every major neighborhood in the district. I have attended meetings for years in those neighborhoods and understand the challenges and tensions in each. I have an extensive network of government contacts at the local, state and federal levels that I can call on to address problems because I have been doing exactly that for the past seven years on behalf of Delegate Pena-Melnyk and Councilman Dernoga. I wrote a letter just last week for a constituent who is appealing a denial by the Social Security Administration of disability benefits for her mentally ill daughter. From a legislative standpoint, I know what it takes to work with stakeholders, reach consensus and get good bills passed to improve our communities and life in our county.

 
(2) You have been a staunch supporter of the current (outgoing) council member Tom Dernoga, who is also strongly endorsing your campaign. Mr. Dernoga’s son Matt Dernoga is also your campaign manager. Critics say that you will most likely follow the style of governance that Mr. Dernoga had in his tenure as District 1 council member. Some criticize Mr. Dernoga for his strong “anti-development” position, especially in regards to the Rt 1 corridor re-development in North College Park. Will you have a similar stance, if elected?

I am a strong supporter and a personal friend of Tom Dernoga’s and have enormous respect for his intellect and integrity. If I am elected, I appreciate that I will have big shoes to fill. I also understand that people will assume that I share most of Tom’s views; however, I am my own person with my own ideas and opinions. I am a journalist by training, not an attorney like Tom, but I am a deliberative and thoughtful person. I will evaluate development proposals on a case-by-case basis on the merits. New development must meet adequate public facilities requirements and be transit-oriented and pedestrian and bike friendly. I am not anti-development because that is not realistic, but we need to begin encouraging redevelopment and infill development rather than pave over every square inch of land in this county.

(3) As a West Laurel resident you (along with Mr. Dernoga) strongly opposed the construction of an African American Church in your neighborhood. A Federal Judge later awarded the Church $3.7 million in a lawsuit against the county. Critics such as State’s attorney candidate Angela Alsobrooks cite this as a religious discrimination case. Do you regret your opposition in the case? Please explain.

First, please do not perpetuate the myth that Reaching Hearts is an African American congregation; it is not. However, having said that, it would not matter to me whether its pastor or congregation were black, white or purple. I personally opposed the Reaching Hearts plan for a worship and conference center because it is an inappropriate location for a development of that size. There are legitimate environmental problems with that parcel of land, namely it cannot pass a soil perc test (This is a test of the absorption rate of water for the purposes of designing a septic drain field.) Either the water table is too high or the clay soil is too dense, but at any rate, the county determined that the parcel does not qualify for a change in the water/sewer category that Reaching Hearts would need to build its complex. This property backs up to the Patuxent Watershed and Rocky Gorge Reservoir where we get our drinking water. This has nothing to do with discrimination on the part of Mr. Dernoga or West Laurel; Reaching Hearts simply hired a clever attorney who sued based on a federal law that makes it harder for the government to deny any religious institution the ability to build wherever it wants.

(4) The City of College Park residents pay nearly $1 million to hire 6 contract police officers (3 P/T, 3 F/T) from the county, because the police service from the county’s regular police PGFD is not enough. If elected, what will you do to help offset such extra cost of law enforcement from local municipalities?

The county police department is clearly understaffed, but I have never heard anyone suggest that Upper Marlboro should directly reimburse a municipality that hires or contracts for its own officers. If any entity should offset the cost associated with municipal policing in College Park, I believe it is the University of Maryland, whose presence contributes significantly to the law enforcement challenges the city faces. I would certainly do my part to support state or federal grants to help fund additional law enforcement for the city of College Park.

Turning the Page – Critical Sept. 14th Local Primaries

The views in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of Rethink College Park or its other contributors.

Election season is upon us. Because of term limits, 5 of the 9 Prince George’s county councilmember seats and the county executive’s spot are incumbent-less and up for grabs. While the general election isn’t till November, winning the Sept. 14th primary in the heavily democratic county usually ensures victory.

This fresh start couldn’t come at a more important time for a county that has a (as the Post puts it) “political culture marked by cronyism, highhandedness, factionalism, and a lack of accountability.” At 850,000 people, Prince George’s boasts a population about 45% larger than DC and many locational and infrastructure advantages compared to similarly situated suburban counties nationwide. Yet it faces a “pandemic of home foreclosures; poverty, crime and unemployment; struggling public schools; an anemic commercial tax base; and Metro stations bereft of the surrounding development that such sites have attracted elsewhere in the region.” Greenfield developments like Konterra and National Harbor abound in the county and sprawl is leapfrogging it’s way towards Upper Marlboro and Charles County, but inner ring suburbs continue to deteriorate. Billions in heavy-rail metro investment (15 stations) sit underutilized decades after construction. Developers avoid the county for fear of a shakedown and hyper-gentrification in DC forces the least economically mobile in the DC region to locate here.

Marcus Afzali pointed out last month that whoever gets elected to the County Council basically reigns king when it comes to proposed development in their district. One person can literally make or break development in their district. The County Executive election is also critical in shaping the direction of the county in the coming years. Who can help make College Park a national model of smart growth and change the course of the county for the better?

District 1 (College Park north of 193, Laurel, Adelphi, Beltsville) – Frederick Smalls endorsed by the Washington Post for his 8 years of experience on the Laurel City Council and time as a state administrator which includes substantial planning experience. The other candidate, Mary Lehman, is a dedicated community activist who was a staffer for Tom Dernoga – the outgoing office holder.

District 3 (College Park south of 193, UMD Campus, Riverdale, Lanham-Seabrook, New Carrollton) – Eric Olson – it’s hard to imagine anyone who has done more for smart growth in College Park than Eric. He has the temperament and clear focus to see the East Campus Redevelopment through to groundbreaking and the chance to further revitalize much of Route 1 near UMD.

County Executive – Rushern Baker – I concur with the Washington Post and Greater Greater Washington. GGW put it best:

“Mr. Baker is the only candidate who puts development around the county’s underutilized Metro stations as a top priority and leading asset for economic development. He also stresses the need to invest in the county’s inner Beltway communities.

After education, Mr. Baker puts development around Metro stations as his top priority. He says that the attention that went into National Harbor should go into development around Metro stations and inside the Beltway forgotten areas.” He also cites the need for mixed use development at Metro and inside the Beltway to include affordable housing.

Mr. Baker often talks about the County’s recent forfeiture of unspent funds that were sent back to HUD and how developers are reluctant to develop in the county due to a perception that they will be “shaken down” by politicians. He calls for leadership that sets a new standard for ethics as critical to attracting quality businesses while helping local businesses thrive. Mr. Baker is the only candidate who can begin to tap the potential of the county and its 15 Metro stations.”

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that our old friend Tom Dernoga will be on the ballot. This time he’s running for Prince George’s state’s attorney – the most important elected law enforcement job and the second highest office in the county. While Dernoga is well-financed and  seems to have a strong following (including in northern College Park’s NIMBY quarters), I’m hard pressed to think of anyone with a worse temperament to hold this or any other elected office. The Post went so far as to say that he’s not qualified for the job:

“…Thomas Dernoga, a term-limited member of the County Council. He is simply not qualified to be the state’s attorney. Although he knows the county’s budget and land-use laws well, Mr. Dernoga has never worked as a prosecutor, nor even as a criminal defense lawyer; in fact, he hasn’t practiced law of any sort in almost a decade. Lacking that basic background and familiarity with criminal law, Mr. Dernoga has no business running a prosecutor’s office in one of Maryland’s biggest and most crime-ridden counties.”

What’s your take?