County Officials Join Residents in Opposition to Rockville School Bus Depot

County Officials Join Residents in Opposition to Rockville School Bus Depot

County Council member calls situation 'a mess' during contentious public meeting

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A yard sign in Rockville opposing an interim bus depot at the Carver Educational Services Center

Aaron Kraut

Facing hundreds of angry constituents, a cavalcade of elected officials Wednesday night announced their opposition to parking 100 county school buses on a parking lot in front of the school system’s Carver Educational Services Center to make way for redevelopment of the system’s Shady Grove Bus Depot.

The meeting, held by Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in the cafeteria of College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville, attracted a standing-room only crowd—most opposed to the idea of putting the buses on the Rockville lot that fronts Route 355 even on an interim basis.

As MCPS staff and a civil engineering consultant attempted to explain future studies and the approval process, those in the audience frequently interrupted.

During a question-and answer-session, elected officials representing multiple levels of government said they were opposed to the idea, including some who had voted to approve a $1.725 million budget appropriation for design and construction of the project earlier this year and late last year.

Nearby residents, many who have joined a group called the Carver School Coalition, think the buses will add traffic, noise and pollution to the area.

The meeting also included an exchange, between County Council member Marc Elrich and Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski, as to which governing body could stop the proposal first.

“This is your building. This is your site,” Elrich told Smondrowski. “You should at least force the issue.”

Smondrowski pointed to the letter the board sent last month asking the county to delay the relocation of the buses until a separate permanent place to put them was identified.

Both bodies—the Board of Education in December and the County Council in February—unanimously approved the $1.725 million budget appropriation. But over the last few months, the community opposition to the proposal has grown and includes an online petition with more than 900 signatures.

Board member Phil Kauffman announced he had concerns about the proposal in April and at Wednesday’s meeting said he was “very encouraged” to hear Elrich and council members George Leventhal and Sidney Katz announce their opposition.

But Kauffman said the school system’s hands are tied unless there is a change in the county’s plans to dispose of the existing 410-bus Shady Grove Depot by January 2017 as part of an agreement with developers LCOR and NVR. Those developers would then build 345 townhomes, 344 apartment units, a park and a new school on the site as part of the county’s broader Smart Growth Initiative for Shady Grove.

The school system and county have for years been studying ways to accommodate all of the 410 buses and maintenance functions at the depot.

“We need to know that we’re not at the mercy of the county and on Jan. 1, they’ll say, ‘Get off Shady Grove Road,’ and we don’t have a place to put our buses,” Kauffman said. “If we hear that, we can certainly stop everything.”

Later in the meeting, one resident questioned the council members about their Feb. 9 vote to approve the $1.725 million appropriation. Leventhal initially responded that money was for the county’s broader Shady Grove Smart Growth Initiative goals and not to create the interim Carver bus depot.

“The money that’s been appropriated is not to move buses to Carver,” Leventhal said.

After the meeting, Elrich told Bethesda Beat it was his understanding the money was to study the possibility of an interim bus lot at Carver.

But council video of a Feb. 1 Education Committee meeting at which Elrich and Katz were present shows MCPS staff made it clear to council members the money was also for the actual implementation of the lot at Carver.

During that six-minute long meeting, Elrich asked MCPS Department of Facilities Management Director James Song, “You’ve got a flat parking lot [already] so what am I spending $1.7 million on?”

“The current parking lot at [Carver] is designed for regular vehicles so $1.725 million is going to include both design and engineering and permitting as well as minor modifications to the parking lot,” Song replied. “And the scope of work includes removal of some of the parking islands. That has to be removed in order to have the necessary turning radii and more efficient parking layout design for buses, which is longer.”

Song explained the money would also be used to add additional layers of asphalt to the lot to bear the heavier weight of the buses. The committee voted 3-0 to recommend approval of the budget appropriation to the full council.

Regardless of the apparent confusion over the budget appropriation, Elrich told Bethesda Beat after the raucous meeting he didn’t think the Carver bus lot proposal would move forward.

An interim school bus parking depot is proposed for the parking lot to the right of the image. The Carver Center is on the left side of the image, via Google Maps.

Elrich said one of the ways the council could stall the proposal was to further delay the declaration of no further need for the Shady Grove Bus Depot site, a move required to allow the county to sell the land to the developers.

MCPS staff said that if the Carver bus lot proposal were to move forward, it would need approval from the City of Rockville’s transportation, planning and historic commissions. Part of the lot provides a view from Route 355 of the Carver building, which now serves as the school system’s administrative offices, but was deemed historic because it was once home to the county’s only modern high school for African-American students.

In a revelation during the meeting Wednesday that seemed to further complicate the process, the three council members said it was possible for the council to override a disapproval from the City of Rockville with a super-majority of six of the nine council members. The council members said they were working to convince at least one other council member to help block a potential override.

“We’re working very diligently to straighten this mess out. This is a mess,” Katz said. “To me, what should happen…is, candidly, we should say no to Carver and then work backwards to figure out what has to happen.”

Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who has made her opposition to the Carver bus depot known in recent weeks, said the county is looking to purchase a site in an industrial area on the opposite side of Route 355 to use as space to put some of the other buses that would need to be moved from Shady Grove.

“It’s hard to know who’s in charge,” Newton said. “I would ask all of us to stop allowing Rockville neighborhoods to be pitted against each other and for all of us to stand together.”

District 17 Del. Kumar Barve declared his opposition to the Carver bus lot on behalf of the entire District 17 delegation to Annapolis, an announcement that received plenty of applause. He said the group has requested an independent traffic study from the State Highway Administration of the Mannakee Street and Route 355 intersection that would likely be most affected by the buses at Carver.

“All four of us are opposed to this project,” Barve said. “We cannot have any project in Rockville that makes a failing intersection fail even worse. …At the end of the day, we all have to know who the ultimate decision maker is.”

City of Rockville Council Member Mark Pierzchala said after the meeting he had never been to a public meeting quite like the one Wednesday.

“We have seen protests before,” Pierzchala told Bethesda Beat. “We haven’t seen one where all these elected officials show up.”

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