District 1 County Council Candidates Differ on Development in Bethesda Area

Issue became divisive during forum as candidates staked positions on the county's growth policy and its effect on local infrastructure

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District 1 County Council candidates at the forum Wednesday night from left to right, Richard Banach, Bill Cook, Pete Fosselman, Andrew Friedson, Ana Sol Gutierrez, Jim McGee, Reggie Oldak, Dalbin Osorio and Meredith Wellington. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

The nine candidates hoping to win the Bethesda-based District 1 County Council seat are making it clear that they hold differing opinions on what is the right pace of development in the Bethesda area.

The threat and promise of development was a major theme as eight Democrats and a Republican, Richard Banach, participated in Wednesday night’s forum sponsored by several Bethesda and Chevy Chase community associations at the 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase. Banach, a college student from Chevy Chase, readily admitted to the more than 200 people who attended that he was running in the race to gain political experience.

The Democrats in the race are Pete Fosselman, Ana Sol Gutierrez, Andrew Friedson, Jim McGee, Dalbin Osorio, Reggie Oldak, Bill Cook and Meredith Wellington.

The candidates ranged from generally opposing development to broadly supporting it. They are vying for the seat being vacated by council member Roger Berliner, who is running for county executive.

District 1 stretches from Bethesda and Chevy Chase north to Dickerson and includes parts of the county's Agricultural Reserve.

Cook, 40, a community activist from Bethesda, said the area doesn’t need new expensive condos or additional growth.

“I don’t know that we need to have massive development and growth,” Cook said. “The product [developers are] selling is our community … . If you want to build here, then it needs to benefit our residents.”

Fosselman, a former mayor of Kensington and a current county employee who is overseeing the implementation of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, said he wouldn’t have voted for either the Bethesda or Westbard master plans approved by the County Council over the past three years. The plans call for increased density in downtown Bethesda as well as the Westbard neighborhood.

He said Westbard lacks mass transit, noting that “buses are not really transit.”

As for the Bethesda plan, Fosselman, 50, said the council approved building height limits and density that won’t protect existing townhomes and single-family homes that surround the downtown core from encroaching development.

Wellington, 68, a Chevy Chase resident who was a Republican when she served on the Montgomery County Planning Board from 1999 to 2007 and later changed her affiliation to Democrat, said she’s not opposed to any particular project being constructed in the area, but does not want development to deteriorate the local quality of life.

She called for the staging of construction projects so infrastructure can keep pace as new buildings are built, more money for transportation and requiring developers to pay “a lot more” for infrastructure such as schools and roads.

Sol Gutierrez, a Chevy Chase resident who has served as a delegate in the General Assembly since 2003, said she supports transit-oriented development that is in “accordance with our master plans.” However, she added, “I don’t want crowded schools, I don’t want more congestion.” That point was echoed by all the candidates on the stage.

In a discussion about school overcrowding, several candidates blamed state representatives from Montgomery County for not securing a fair share of state school construction money when compared to other counties.

 “We need to be a much stronger player at the state level,” admitted Sol Gutierrez, which led moderator Charles Duffy to point out that she’s been in Annapolis “when they’re cutting up the pie.”

“I’m going to turn that directly around,” Sol Gutierrez responded. “The council is not there. The council is not monitoring, it’s not applying for grants, it’s not advocating, it’s not there.”

That prompted Oldak, a Bethesda attorney, to call out Sol Gutierrez.

“Ana, I think you’re being disingenuous, we have you there and that’s why we sent you there,” Oldak said.

On the development issue, Oldak, 67, said she supports construction of new buildings to spur economic growth, but wants it focused near transit. She also promised to work if elected to try to prevent ongoing construction in the area from impacting traffic and pedestrian mobility.

Osorio, a 32-year-old social worker and Chevy Chase resident, said he supports development, but also doesn’t want it to impact the local quality of life.

McGee, a health benefits professional from Bethesda, said that while he thinks some of the height limits approved in recent master plans were “a little bit obscene,” he generally favors increased development and increased density. He said that by co-locating retail, residential and office buildings together—one of the goals of master plans such as those that cover downtown Bethesda and White Flint—the county can reduce congestion by reducing the number of people who travel long distances to stores and other businesses.

Friedson, a Bethesda resident and former adviser to state Comptroller Peter Franchot, said he, too, supports transit-oriented development. He added that in order to pay for the infrastructure, county officials must spur economic development by attracting businesses, a process that includes real estate development.

“Our problem is that we aren’t expanding the pie,” Friedson, 32, said. “We need to grow our tax base. We need economic development.”

Duffy, the moderator, later pointed out that Friedson has taken contributions from developers.

Friedson responded that he was “proud” of all the contributions he’s received and none would affect his decision-making.

However, Duffy didn’t specifically call out Fosselman, who has also received contributions from developers according to his most recent campaign finance report filed with the state Board of Elections in January.

Friedson is using traditional campaign financing along with Fosselman and Wellington. Friedson outpaced the other candidates in fundraising, bringing in about $216,000 in individual contributions as of January. Fosselman reported about $105,00 in individual contributions. Wellington received $97,600 in individual contributions and provided a $66,000 loan to her campaign as well as a $6,000 contribution from herself.

Wellington has pledged not to "knowingly" take contributors from developers, according to her website.

Oldak, Sol Gutierrez, Cook and Osorio are all enrolled in the county’s public campaign financing system. So far, only Oldak has qualified to receive matching funds, according to the county’s February public financing report.

The candidates also differed on whether they would support privatizing the county’s Department of Liquor Control, which controls the wholesale distribution of alcohol and retail sale of liquor in the county. Each year, the department transfers about $30 million in profits to the county’s general fund—a revenue stream current officials have fought to maintain despite criticism of the department from privately owned beer and wine stores and restaurants.

Banach, the Republican, said he supported state Del. Bill Frick’s attempts to remove the county’s monopoly and let private distributors compete in the local alcohol business.

As for the Democrats, Cook, Sol Gutierrez and McGee said they’d like to maintain and improve the current system. Fosselman called for a hybrid system in which the county only handled sales of hard liquor. And on the other side, Friedson, Oldak, Osorio and Wellington all said the county should transition out of the liquor business.

Friedson, who previously worked for one of the DLC’s most adamant opponents—Franchot—described the liquor monopoly as a “prohibition policy” and said the county is losing a significant amount of local alcohol sales because residents are buying wine, beer and liquor outside its borders.

“It’s killing our restaurant industry,” Friedson said. “We can do better.”

Oldak, however, said she was concerned about how the county would replace the annual revenue and jobs that could be eliminated if the county left the business. Still, she stated, “I don’t think the county should be in the liquor business.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported a majority of Wellington's contributions came from a loan she provided, in fact she received $97,600 in individual contributions and loaned her campaign $66,000. The story has been updated to reflect individual contributions rather than overall contributions.

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