In Montgomery, a wall speaks volumes about county government

The retaining wall being built at Cabin John Middle School.
The retaining wall being built at Cabin John Middle School. (Steven L. Katz)
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By Steven L. Katz
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Only halfway through 2010, the award for "What Were They Thinking?" in Montgomery County has already been sewn up by the Montgomery County Public Schools, the Montgomery Board of Education and the Montgomery County Council. This dubious honor is for the Cabin John Middle School retaining wall -- unsafe, ugly and, until it was almost halfway built, local government's version of a closely held secret.

The 11-foot-high wall is rising like an inverted Vietnam war memorial along two streets, with its apex at the heart of a 40-year-old residential neighborhood at Gainsborough and Bells Mill roads in Potomac. The wall will reach a height of 14 feet once an "ornamental guardrail" is added.

Walls are symbols. The Cabin John wall is a symbol of the dysfunctional relationship between the County Council and the school systems that The Post has written and editorialized about recently.

The "What Were They Thinking?" award is merited in large part because of the dangers the wall creates. Did school officials, planners and architects forget that this site will house hundreds of students? I'm not looking forward to seeing the first 40-pound backpack, cellphones, school lunches and more fly over the wall.

Look out below!

You can't win this award for a lack of common sense alone, however; it helps to have compounded the error by trying to prevent the public from pointing it out. The school community and neighborhood (where I live) are rightly upset because no one appears to have known anything about the wall until it began going up. Not a single drawing, blueprint, photo, report or Web page available to the public depicted or described the wall until after residents called an emergency meeting. Near as anyone can determine, the first public admission by MCPS's school construction chief of plans for the wall came at an emergency community meeting on May 17.

At this meeting, that other wall -- the one between the County Council and the school system -- was also on display. Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) welcomed those in attendance and pointed the finger at the schools, saying, "We give them the money, but we can't control what they do with it." Then he left for another event.

That left the two-hour meeting to James Song, MCPS construction director, and a stone-silent cast of architects and construction officials. Song skillfully used a "kill 'em with kindness" approach to lull and bore the angry and frustrated residents and parents. It worked. He insisted that there will be a wall.

But the Cabin John wall is equally the County Council's fault. What legislature grants some 57 percent of its budget to one entity -- MCPS -- then says "we give them the money, but we can't control what they do with it"? Where is the council's backbone and its checks and balances?

In truth, this retaining wall is rising because the County Council has passed responsibility for addressing growth to MCPS, and as a result, the new Cabin John Middle School is practically bursting onto the street. The emergency meeting appears to have forced MCPS to slow the pace of construction, go back to the drawing board and discuss the wall with residents. Yet Song wants residents to lower their expectations without lowering the wall.

Progress on the Cabin John retaining wall could show that the County Council, the school board and the school system realize that legislative backbone, government oversight and accountability, and better collaboration are sorely needed. The project is moving toward completion on time and under budget, but surely a good landscape architect and engineer could help MCPS develop a safer, and more attractive and appropriate, solution for the school and the neighborhood. What are they thinking now?

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