The chambers of the Montgomery County Council were packed as local politicians and county residents brought a host of issues to the attention of the 32 current and incoming members of the county’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly during last week’s four-hour forum.
Residents are hoping the delegation will tackle a number of issues during the legislative session, which begins Jan. 9 in Annapolis. Here are some of the issues that county residents brought to the table:
At least 10 residents voiced concern over Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to widen interstates 270 and 495 in order to add four toll lanes. Many asked for the passage of a bill that is being sponsored by Del. Al Carr, of Kensington, which would require the Montgomery County Council to approve any addition of toll lanes to a highway before a state agency can begin work. Residents who live in subdivisions next to I-270, such as Elliott Levine of Rockville, are concerned that an expansion could lead to more emissions of greenhouse gases and more noise for neighbors. Levine said he lives close enough to the interstate that he can see it through the trees bordering his property.
“After the fall and winter, after the leaves have dropped, the noise becomes more pronounced,” he said.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton also said she has concerns about the I-270 widening project, and asked the delegation to push for legislation that prevents the road’s width from extending beyond existing noise barriers.
Residents also requested the delegation, in addition to opposing the I-270 widening project, push for around-the-clock MARC commuter train service between Washington, D.C., and Frederick. MARC trains currently stop at 11 stations in Montgomery County, but only run during rush hour on weekdays, with all trains going south in the morning and north in the evening.
Several residents raised the issue of pedestrian safety in the wake of eight collisions that had occurred within 24 hours Monday evening into Tuesday morning.
“Getting to school and back should not be a life-and-death activity,” said Laura Stewart, who is the vice president for advocacy of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations.
Stewart urged the delegation to ask for data from state transportation officials on how many collisions have occurred at school bus stops.
Karen Cordry, president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association, said she legislators to draft a bill that gives the county authority to lower speeds in residential areas and improve crosswalks. Kristy Daphnis, who chairs the county’s Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Safety Advisory Committee, and an organizer of the coalition of No More Dead Pedestrians, also spoke in support of pedestrian safety, and advocated for more collaboration between jurisdictions.
Several residents spoke in support of Del. Eric Luedtke’s bill that would give the council the authority to change the voting method in the county to a “ranked choice” model.
Ruben Lebron, who is part of a group advocating for ranked choice voting in the county, said that without the new method, “we will continue to see large numbers of candidates due to term limits and public financing.” Another resident who spoke insisted that Potomac businessman David Trone would not have won the June Democratic primary for the 6th District congressional seat if a different voting method were used.
Paul Bessel, a local Democratic Party activist, asked the delegation to support legislation that would allow county residents to vote only by mail, as is currently done in the states of Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
“We send out sample ballots. All you have to do is take the word ‘sample’ out of it. We wouldn’t need an army of people at the polls,” he said.
Nate Tinbite, a junior at Silver Spring’s John F. Kennedy High School and an activist in the group MOCO Students for Change, asked the delegation a mandated voter registration drive across all counties in Maryland. Tinbite and his fellow students had helped organize a voter registration drive across several county high schools throughout September and October.
Local control of rules for small cell antennas
County Council President Hans Riemer requested the delegation oppose any proposed measure to give the state preemption authority when it comes to installing small cellular antennas. The council has been attempting to pass legislation for the last two years that would permit the installation of the antennas in residential zones. The county has also joined 40 localities that are suing the Federal Communications Commission’s local preemption ruling.
“It is our contention that we can handle this, and we can handle these setback issues,” Riemer asserted to the delegation.
Hotel taxes on Airbnb
Ryan Spiegel, a member of the Gaithersburg City Council, asked the delegation to rewrite the rules for levying hotel taxes in the city. Currently, the city can collect tax revenue from all hotels of 10 rooms or more at a rate of 2 percent, which is automatically factored in to each guest’s bill along with sales tax. Within the last 10 years, Spiegel said, the legislature gave Montgomery County the authority to levy the tax on hotels with less than 10 rooms, which largely was meant to incorporate hospitality services like Airbnb. But the law, he said, is currently written to exclude the independent jurisdictions of Gaithersburg and Rockville. The exemption, he said, was originally included in order to make sure tourists weren’t deterred from staying at bed and breakfasts upcounty. At that time, he said, Airbnb did not exist.
Other issues that came up frequently during Wednesday night’s discussion included funding for higher education as well as education for kindergarten through grade 12, a push for a statewide $15 minimum wage, looser restrictions on deer hunting and “just cause” eviction legislation that is being sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins. The delegation will hold two more public meetings in December to discuss legislation before the session begins in Annapolis.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org