Nine Rockville City Council candidates and two mayoral candidates debated Wednesday whether the city has been left behind other places in Montgomery County when it comes to development and the recovering economy.
The debate, sponsored by the Rockville Chamber of Commerce and moderated by chamber board member Brian Barkley, put the focus almost squarely on development, a hot-button issue after the current City Council voted 3-2 in June to loosen a policy that was restricting some projects because of overcrowded schools.
The debate included questions about the city’s role in an economic incentive package to attract the corporate headquarters of Choice Hotels and about whether new development on either side of the city, Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg and Pike & Rose in White Flint, was drawing business away from Rockville.
“Pike & Rose and Crown will have some impact on the City of Rockville for a while. Just like the new toy under the Christmas tree, everybody wants to go to the new places,” said incumbent Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who voted against loosening the city’s development policy and has defended the deliberate process the city has taken with new zoning recommendations for its own stretch of Rockville Pike.
“But I think they’ll come back to Rockville and I think you’ve seen it,” Newton said. “Pike & Rose is going to lose one of their first businesses. Crown has lost two restaurants. It’s going to happen. Nobody can dictate who's going to succeed and who’s going to fail.”
Sima Osdoby, who's challenging Newton for mayor, said the city must first finish the Rockville Pike Plan, a master plan process that started in 2007 and could dictate building heights and density along a 1.9-mile stretch of Rockville Pike just north of White Flint.
“You’ve got this development that’s happening to our north and development that’s happening to our south and it is affecting the city because it’s generating traffic and it’s coming through the city. We’re dealing with the negative effects without getting the benefits,” Osdoby said. “Can somebody please explain to me why it’s taken eight years to get a replacement for a Rockville Pike Plan that’s from the last century? By having no Rockville Pike Plan, I don’t see why people would want to build anything here.”
Osdoby, a government leadership training consultant, has seized on the Rockville Pike Plan issue in an attempt to portray Newton as an indecisive leader.
In her opening statement Wednesday, Newton said she strives to lead by consensus, something that was largely absent on the current council, which produced a number of contentious moments and 3-2 votes.
Barkley asked the candidates to assess the agreement in 2012 to bring Choice Hotels to Rockville, which included an incentive package of almost $3 million from Montgomery County and $156,000 from the City of Rockville.
Newton, then a council member, abstained from a vote to provide the money. She criticized Osdoby for brining that vote up because it happened in a closed executive session. She also said a Choice Hotels official called her the company’s biggest supporter during the Monday grand opening of its Cambria Suites Hotel in Rockville.
Newton did go on to say she doesn’t support offering incentives to corporations that might be interested in moving to Rockville.
“I believe that Rockville stands on its own,” Newton said.
Osdoby countered by saying that as mayor, she would work “night and day” to attract Marriott International to the city. The company has said it plans to move from its Bethesda headquarters to a more Metro-accessible location.
“My understanding is that the mayor has exhibited no interest in trying to attract them here,” Osdoby said.
Newton said that was a “falsehood,” and that she’s had numerous conversations with chamber officials, property owners and Marriott officials about the possibility.
Running for council alongside Osdoby on the Team Rockville slate are incumbent council members Virginia Onley and Julie Palakovich Carr, former council member Mark Pierzchala and first-time candidate Clark Reed.
Also running is incumbent council member Beryl Feinberg, who touted her role in creating a zoning text amendment last year that banned storage facilities from being built within 250 feet of any school.
The move was made to counter the Siena Corp.’s plan to build a self-storage facility near Maryvale Elementary School. The company has sued the city over the zoning law in a case that is ongoing.
Feinberg said that if she’s re-elected, she’ll work to enact laws to ban liquor stores, pawn shops and gun stores from being within school zones.
While many view Team Rockville as more pro-development, other candidates expressed a desire to see more development in Rockville and support of the June decision to change the development policy.
When asked if she would reverse the decision if elected, candidate Brigitta Mullican said she wouldn’t and that Rockville should get out of the discussion entirely because it’s Montgomery County—not the city—that determines how many students go to each public school and which schools get addition projects when.
Council candidate Patrick Schoof said the city shouldn’t just revert back to its old and more strict development policy, but should try to get Montgomery County to adopt the same policy as the city's.
Council candidate Rich Gottfried said reverting to the city’s old policy would be “my very first motion” if elected.
Gottfried told Bethesda Beat in August that Onley, who was seen as the swing vote on the issue, was “gotten to by some fat-cat developer.”
In her opening statement Wednesday, Onley said she took exception to that remark and that when Gottfried was asked to defend his statement on Facebook, he replied that he meant it “as a metaphor.”
“Well, where I’m from, we call that a lie,” Onley said Wednesday.
Council candidate David Hill pointed to his experience on the city’s Planning Commission and said he’s known as the guy who asks developers “tough questions, probing questions,” about their proposals, but that he’s also been fair to developers and helped them create better projects.
Election day is Nov. 3. There are four council seats and the four who are elected will serve a four-year term with the mayoral election winner on Rockville’s five-member council.