Derwood Dispatches: Bus depot tops Shady Grove Civic Alliance discussion

Montgomery County Council District 3 candidates offer their ideas on buses, other issues

Photos and text by Jason Wermers

 Montgomery County Council District 3 challenger Ben Shnider  

Montgomery County Council District 3 challenger Ben Shnider

The two candidates running for the Montgomery County Council District 3 seat fielded several questions and stated their cases for votes during the Greater Shady Grove Civic Alliance Meeting on Wednesday evening.

 Montgomery County Council Member Sidney Katz (D-District 3)  

Montgomery County Council Member Sidney Katz (D-District 3)

Incumbent Council Member Sidney Katz and challenger Ben Shnider, both Democrats, answered questions on a variety of topics, including the persistence of the Montgomery County Public Schools bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Derwood, the issue of commercial operations being allowed in the middle of residential neighborhoods, and how to increase affordable housing in the county, among other topics.

Shnider and Katz will face each other in the June 26 Democratic primary. With no Republican candidates, the winner of the primary will effectively win the seat.

More than 50 people gathered for the meeting in the Mill Creek Towne Elementary auditorium.

The top issue on the minds of several at the alliance meeting is the vexing problem of the bus depot. Six years after the county truck a deal to move the school system’s bus depot from Crabbs Branch Way and sell the 35 acres to private developers, more than 400 school buses still occupy the property and travel area roads to take students to and from school.

The deal was part of County Executive Isaiah Leggett’s Smart Growth Initiative, a plan he touted as a way to maintain a competitive, resilient, and sustainable economy; create transit-oriented development; and replace and modernize antiquated public facilities, among other priorities.

But after a failed attempt to relocate some buses to the Carver Educational Services Center on Hungerford Drive in Rockville, and a lack of other places to move the buses, Leggett ordered a study, and that is where the issue stands for now.

Last month, when Council Vice President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) visited the Shady Grove alliance, she was peppered was contentious questions and comments concerning the bus depot.

Residents were not satisfied with Navarro’s responses, including the lack of a timeline on when a decision will be made about how, when (or even whether) to move the buses to other locations around the county.

Navarro, who is running unopposed for re-election, said she would keep working on the issue but emphasized that she does not represent the area that includes the bus depot, that she is one of nine council members and that the school system ultimately has to make the final decision.

Katz does represent the area and is running for a second term, and Shnider hopes to unseat him. The first question both District 3 candidates fielded concerned the buses.

“We’ve got to move those 450 school buses. I don’t think that the status quo is acceptable,” Shnider said, later adding, “I’m not satisfied with the fact that we have a study, certainly, with no end in sight. And so, I think, if I were to be elected your county council member, a top priority on Day 1 would be to be in the ear of the county executive, to be working with the Board of Education, to come up with a comprehensive solution.”

One idea he proposed — something that was voiced by several residents at last month’s alliance meeting — was to distribute the school buses in smaller numbers to more locations to avoid having a large concentration.

Katz said it is actually 419 buses, not 450, in the depot — “not that that makes it any less of a problem.” He listed several proposals for moving portions of those buses that did not work for various reasons: Carver, Westmore Avenue in the Lincoln Park area, and the Blair Ewing Center on Ayer Road.

“What we need to do is, we need to find a place that will be safe,” Katz said. “For the buses, I can tell you, it’s a top priority for me. It will be a top priority for me to work with the next county executive as well. … I think about it all the time, and I will solve it.”

Commercial operations in neighborhoods

Alliance President Pat Labuda outlined several what she termed “abuses” in which commercial operations are being allowed in residential areas. She listed:

  • the Taiwan Culture Center at Needwood and Redland roads, which she said wants to increase a 1,068-square-foot house to 12,500 square feet, including 10 meeting rooms and a two-story auditorium for 150 people, and which she added was approved in error by the Montgomery County Board of Appeals
  • a day care that is seeking to buy three 2-acre lots on the other side of Needwood Road to build a facility that could hold up to 200 children at a time
  • a homeowner in the Mill Creek community who has created a parking lot made of crushed gravel for commercial vehicles in his backyard, which backs up to seven other backyards that are higher in elevation and are “overlooking this unsightly mess,” Abuda said. 

“How do you feel the county can improve the process to adjudicate commercial uses in residential areas?” she asked both council candidates.

Shnider said that people the council appoints to the Board of Appeals and other bodies need to be “community-minded people who are in this for the right reason and that they’re really going to proactively be there to seek input from the community, and that they’re really intensely motivated and excited about doing these jobs.”

He said he would like to restore funding to the Montgomery County Office of People’s Counsel, which has not been funded since 2011. This office would help residents navigate regulatory processes such as the ones Abuda listed, Shnider said.

Shnider added that the district’s council member should “be in front of” issues like these and help prepare residents when there might be an unpopular zoning proposal coming up.

Katz acknowledged that the Board of Appeals has made errors in situations such as those Abuda described. He said he already has been looking into how the Office of People’s Counsel can be returned to operation, but that in the meantime, residents can call his office and get referrals to county employees with expertise willing to help.

“It’s wrong that a community has to spend as much money as you all have in order to prove that the county was not correct in what they were suggesting,” Katz said.

Affordable housing

In response to a question about what the county can do to increase affordable housing, especially for senior citizens and those with disabilities, Katz said Montgomery already requires 12.5 percent of new housing developments to include affordable homes. He said he supports increasing that to as high as 25 percent.

“The affordable housing itself has to do with so many other things,” he said. “You’re talking about senior citizens. Well, the transportation matters, and we have to have Metro access. … We need to make certain that our affordable housing really is affordable. And that’s one way I think we can help our transportation problems. If a police officer has to live in Frederick County in order to police in Montgomery County because they can’t afford to live here, they have to drive down the road to get there. That’s not what any of us want. … And I think that we’re doing a better job, but we have a whole lot of way to go.”

Shnider agreed that people such as police officers, firefighters, teachers and other county workers have trouble affording the cost of living here. He said more people are moving into the county, and housing is not keeping up with demand, driving prices up and pricing some out of the market.

“Right now, we target our MDPUs at folks who make 65 percent of median annual income in Montgomery County, and that’s a pretty hefty amount of money,” he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2016, the median household income in Montgomery County was $100,352, and the per-capita income was $49,906. That same year, the median value of owner-occupied housing units in the county was $460,100.

“With our MDPU mandates — our moderately priced dwelling unit mandates — I want to see us target a portion of that to people who make less so that we’re making sure our community with disabilities can live here, we’re making sure our teachers — all of them — and our support staff at MCPS can live here, and that we’re making sure that we truly have the diverse community we’re so proud of and boast about,” Shnider said. “So we need to maximize the tradeoff for affordable housing; we also need to work toward net-zero loss of affordable housing as we grow.”

Rent stabilization — requiring rents to rise no faster than the cost of living — is one way to make sure affordable housing is not lost, he said, along with providing incentives for developers to build new affordable housing.

Check out the full post here.

Ben Shnider