Montgomery County Council is poised to tear away the democratic veil that hangs over development plans for large businesses. According to Bethesda Beat reporter AJ Metcalf, the Council unanimously approved ZTA 18-05 yesterday in a straw poll and plans to formally pass the zoning amendment on Thursday.
The story behind ZTA 18-05 goes even deeper than our previous reporting on the public hearing that took place last Tuesday, May 15, 2018. On the following Thursday, May 17th, the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee met to discuss the amendment in question. Attendees to that meeting reported that the Montgomery County Planning Board representatives testified in favor of including a pre-submission public hearing to ZTA 18-05.
A pre-submission public hearing is a standard part of development review in the county. The Planning Board pointed out that it is mandatory for small business development plans. Therefore, they suggested, “the Council may wish to consider requiring a pre-submission public meeting.”
However, PHED Committee members Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, and Hans Reimer rejected this suggestion. This is a blatant slap in the face to democratic processes. Without the pre-submission hearing, the public will be a step behind developers at every point that follows.
Organizers watching the sad charade to note of the PHED Committee’s dereliction of duty and pressured sympathetic councilmembers to revisit the pre-submission hearings. They succeeded.
During yesterday’s council session, Marc Elrich introduced an amended ZTA 18-05 to include a pre-submission public hearing requirement. No councilmembers publicly opposed it. It was a small gesture to Elrich’s base that he still has two ears that hear. We congratulate and thank the effort by tireless organizers who pushed Elrich to take even this small stand.
Nancy Floreen also introduced her own amendment to widen the business base benefiting from the lowered zoning standards to those with 20,000 employees, instead of the original 25,000. Floreen’s amendment was unanimously accepted by Council.
The Planning Board testimony last Thursday included further troubling information. The Board admitting that, in order to keep to the drastically reduced site review timeline, they may require, “all-hands-on-deck…dozens of staff members to drop what they are doing and work full-time for 2 weeks on such a project.” Further, the Planning Board indicated, “… it may be necessary for [the Planning Board] to request additional resources via a special appropriation to ensure the expedited review for a Signature Business Headquarters plan and to minimize the impact on other projects.”
The term “special appropriation” is not defined in the document. It can be surmised to mean the County Planning Board may draft staff from other public agencies to cover the gap created when large businesses submit their plans.
This is a gross misuse of public funds and public servants for private interests. One expert in accounting and planning policy commented, “This essentially turns public employees into Amazon workers. They cease to be public servants the minute all their attention is diverted to one corporation’s plans.”
Indeed this is a form of local austerity, the restriction or cutting of public services in order to appease the demands of large capital-owners.
If democracy means anything, it means giving everyone roughly equal access to meaningful participation in decisions affecting their lives. And community means that people have meaningful relationships with one another such that they work collaboratively towards shared goals along similar shared values. This zoning amendment tramples over these concepts.
Despite Elrich’s amendment, this is still a wholly un-democratic and biased process. Cramming public hearings into 60 days does not satisfy a need for advanced notice for localities to get informed regarding the issue. Local businesses’ plans are put on hold while the county focuses “all-hands” on their monolithic competitor. Public employees are shifted to working for private profit-making.
Never again, after this amendment, can any sitting councilmember ever claim to be in favor of small local businesses. Never again can they claim to value public input, or not be beholden to special interests.