Germantown Weighs a Tax That Binds
Special Levy Seen as Way To Foster Community

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2005

If Germantown were a city, it would be Maryland's second largest, after Baltimore. It is home to 85,000 people, 30,000 more than nearby Rockville. Its footprint covers 16 square miles, six more than neighboring Gaithersburg.

The difference is that Rockville and Gaithersburg are both incorporated, with mayors, councils and city managers. Germantown, an unincorporated part of Montgomery County, doesn't even have an official Web site. Until this year, there were no signs on state roads letting drivers know when they enter the community.

"It was more like German-area rather than German-town," said Douglas O'Bryon, a former resident who now lives in Ohio.

Lately, however, citizen groups and officials at two county agencies are pushing a proposal they say will give this fragmented place something it has been struggling to develop for decades: a sense of community and a spirit of unity.

The idea is to levy a tax on residents and businesses to generate money to enhance services and amenities, borrowing a concept that has been used in Montgomery towns such as Bethesda and Wheaton. The improvement district, as it would be known in Germantown, would be the first of its kind in the county's northern tier.

If the agencies get enough community support, they will recommend to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) that he include the potential tax revenue in his budget proposal for next year.

Then, if the County Council approves the plan, residential and commercial property in the Germantown master plan area will be taxed a maximum of 2.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation annually. The revenue, an estimated $1.7 million, would go toward some services the county is now responsible for but performs infrequently -- including maintaining medians, trimming trees, removing weeds and picking up trash in public areas.

"You start to tie things together if you show pride," said Bob Fischer, a business development specialist for the county's Department of Housing and Community Affairs who is promoting the plan. Officials at another agency, the Upcounty Regional Services Center, also are behind the idea.

Other, more obvious community-building activities and amenities -- such as street banners, signs and flags -- would be included in the budget. So would money for Germantown's main community event, its Oktoberfest celebration, and new events such as Fourth of July fireworks. A citizens advisory group would oversee the budget, and an on-site supervisor would monitor the work.

The money could be used only in Germantown.

"It's a step forward," said Christina Hackett, president of the Chadswood Homeowners Association. "It's the next best thing to being a city."

Others see it as a waste of money at a time when there are more pressing needs, such as preventing gang violence. "I don't think that we should have to pay more taxes to get someone to mow our grass," said Germantown resident Alice Gordon, who produces a weekly cable show about issues in northern Montgomery.

County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents the area, said he is undecided on the proposal. "I don't think you necessarily need to raise money to create community," he said.

Supercharged Growth

Over the past 25 years, Germantown, once a farming community, has seen a whopping increase in its population from about 10,000 people in 1980 to 85,000 today. Many new residents are young adults who have been priced out of more expensive parts of the region.

Germantown has long been derided as an example of community planning gone wrong, its residents identifying more with the six villages the community was designed around than Germantown as a whole. Its governance comes in the form of more than 100 homeowners associations that interact little with each other.

"Germantown was built so fast," said Sheila Myers, treasurer of the Germantown Citizens Association. "Everything just happened so quickly. The people were suddenly here before things caught up. They kind of backed into the door a little bit. This is such a beautiful community. But there's still X, Y and Z to be done, and they're trying to go back to refine it."

The people came before the town center, the BlackRock Center for the Arts and the Maryland SoccerPlex opened in recent years. A public pool is set to open next month, and a highly anticipated library is scheduled to begin operating in the late spring.

It took almost a year, and a push from state Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery), to get the state to pay for seven road signs identifying Germantown. They are not glitzy signs, just green and white ones that say simply "Germantown."

"To me it was an easy and important first step to defining what and where Germantown is," Garagiola said.

Fischer said the shortage of money for maintenance is not a snub of Germantown. Rather, he said, with the population increasing all over Montgomery, the county has struggled to meet of all of its communities' needs.

In Germantown, that's where the homeowners associations come in. They charge residents monthly fees and use part of the money to take care of roads and outdoor areas.

Pam Czarick, manager of Waters Landing, a village of more than 3,000 single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums and apartments, compares Germantown to a quilt. The villages are like the patches, she said, and the county roads are the areas that connect them.

"I really believe Germantown deserves better in its care and maintenance of common roads," said Czarick, who moved to Germantown from Gaithersburg in 1982.

No Central Authority

Talk of incorporation, which would give Germantown a central government, road crews and more tax revenue, pops up every once in a while. But the process would be long and costly and would require a referendum.

Past efforts to unify the community in other ways have failed.

Last year, then-resident O'Bryon, an entrepreneur, tried to come up with a slogan that would help outsiders identify Germantown. Other towns have such brands. Gaithersburg is "A 'Character Counts!' City" and Silver Spring has "Silver Sprung." O'Bryon chaired a committee that came up with two possibilities: "Germantown: The Heart of Montgomery" and "Germantown: Where You Can Have It All!"

But this year, the Germantown Alliance, which was sponsoring the effort, tabled it.

"The challenge was there is no governing body, there was never an individual with an authority to bequeath a brand on something," O'Bryon said.

Catherine Matthews, director of the Upcounty Regional Services Center, said Germantown is more of a community than it used to be, thanks partly to a town center that includes several restaurants and shops and the BlackRock arts center. What had been a transient townhouse community is now having more families stay with the construction of additional single-family homes, other officials said.

"Germantown is still maturing," Matthews said. "It's a lot farther along than it was 10 years ago, and it will continue to mature and develop. We're getting there."

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