2015 | Politics

Purple Line Advocates Question Lobbying by Columbia Country Club Members

Action Committee for Transit wants Montgomery County to look into whether 2013 deal was violated

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The pro-Purple Line Action Committee for Transit (ACT) on Tuesday wrote to county officials, questioning whether the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase—long a source of resistance to the light rail project—had violated a 2013 formal agreement to drop its opposition to construction of the line.

The flap, involving two entities with a history of acrimonious relations, comes several weeks before Gov. Larry Hogan is scheduled to announce a decision on the fate of the 16-mile long Purple Line. The project, now priced at $2.45 billion and encompassing 21 stations stops from Bethesda on the west to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County on the east, has been the subject of intense controversy for more than three decades.

“Columbia Country Club has blatantly violated the spirit of the contract it signed with Montgomery County and the state of Maryland, in which it agreed not to oppose the Purple Line via lobbying or ‘assisting other persons in communicating opposition’,” Ronit Dancis, vice president of ACT, said in a letter to County Executive Ike Leggett and the Montgomery County Council.

While stopping short of contending that the contract itself—signed in June 2013 by representatives of Leggett’s office, the state attorney general and the country club—had been legally breached, Dancis’ letter added, “We have reason to believe that the facts demonstrate that the country club has violated the letter of the contract as well.”

Leggett’s spokesman, Patrick Lacefield, declined comment, pending review of the ACT letter and the 2013 agreement by Leggett and the county attorney’s office. Geoffrey Gonella, who signed the agreement with the county and state as president of the Columbia Country Club in 2013, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Neither did a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.

The agreement was signed by the club after the county and state made concessions on the route of the Purple Line, to mitigate the impact on the club and its adjacent golf course along the west side of Connecticut Avenue. While the contract does not bar individual club members from continuing to oppose the Purple Line, the point at issue appears to be whether recent fundraising and lobbying activities by club members had the approval and/or active participation of the club’s leadership.

Ben Ross, a long-time leader of ACT, said the group has not determined whether the information it has gathered represents a breach of the letter of the agreement, as opposed to its spirit. “That’s a legal question that we didn’t want to offer an opinion on,” said Ross, while quickly adding: “But it defies common sense that all this is going on without the full knowledge of the club leadership.”

The ACT letter cited a Chevy Chase fundraiser for Hogan, held two weeks before he was sworn into office in late January, at which the contributors included a member of the Columbia Country Club’s Board of Governors and the spouses of three other club board members. (Earlier this year, Ross said that an analysis of campaign finance disclosure reports indicated that club members had donated a total of $35,000 at the event.)

A day after taking office Jan. 21, Hogan—who frequently criticized the projected cost of the Purple Line during last year’s campaign—announced his administration would conduct a comprehensive reevaluation of the project. Pending that review, he did maintain the funding for the line placed in the state’s capital budget by his successor, former Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“Subsequently, leading members of the country club met with members of Governor Hogan's staff and with the state Secretary of Transportation for the purpose of lobbying against the Purple Line,” declared the ACT letter—alluding to what sources said was a March 9 meeting that included Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn and at least four members of the club.

Ross said that if the club is found to have breached the agreement, potential sanctions could include revoking permission for the club to utilize the county-owned right-of-way that now runs through the club’s golf course. “It’s not clear to me that they need a court order to do that,” Ross said of the county’s ability to take use of the right-of-way. “That’s one of the questions we want the county to look at… .The county’s lawyers have to come up with the best strategy.”

The right-of-way encompasses the one-time route of the Georgetown Branch freight line that the county purchased in 1988; the Purple Line would utilize the old Georgetown Branch route from Bethesda to the outskirts of Silver Spring.

The dispute over the Columbia Country Club agreement comes as lobbying on both sides of the Purple Line debate has intensified.

Economic Partners of the Purple Line, a business group pushing for construction of the Purple Line, is tentatively scheduled to meet with Rahn late next week. The meeting originally had been scheduled for mid-April but was postponed. Economic Partners of the Purple Line was organized late last year by the Chevy Chase Land Co., whose property along Connecticut Avenue would be the location of the first Purple Line station east of Bethesda.

Meanwhile, about a dozen business groups and other pro-Purple Line organizations met in Silver Spring on Monday afternoon, in what was in large part an effort to gin up lobbying efforts in advance of Hogan’s impending decision on the fate of the light rail line.

The session featured an update of a 2010 economic impact study of the Purple Line, with the update—underwritten by Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and the Greater Washington Board of Trade—forecasting an increase of 27,000 permanent jobs and $2.2 billion in income over a 30-year period as a result of the project. Those figures are up 2 percent and 13 percent, respectively, from projections five years ago, according to economist Alex Metcalf—who conducted both the original study and the update.

“It will give this corridor approximately one year’s extra economic growth that it would not have gotten otherwise,” Metcalf declared.

Hogan’s decision on the fate of the project is expected sometime in the next 30 days; sources said Rahn is expected to meet with Hogan on the project this week, although a Rahn spokeswoman could not immediately confirm that.

Rahn has said he has been tasked with finding ways to cut the cost of the Purple Line as part of the reevaluation order by Hogan. “The challenge I’ve been given is: Can we reduce those costs?” he was quoted as saying at a Greater Washington Board of Trade session in mid-March.

He has not publicly mentioned any specific reduction target, but several sources said indications in recent meetings with state officials is that Rahn is looking to cut anywhere from $350 million to $500 million. That would represent about 15 to 20 percent of the Purple Line’s current projected $2.45 billion cost. Ideas raised for cutting costs having included running trains less frequently, thereby saving on the rail cars that would need to be purchased initially.

Also floated in recent meetings with state officials was the prospect of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties increasing the amount they would contribute—now set at $110 million per county—toward the project.

No specific new figure was mentioned, but some local officials privately suspect that, if Hogan gives the go-ahead to the project, it will be tied to the two counties’ picking up an additional share of the price tag.