Amid charges that it was skirting the intent of a new law the Montgomery County Council yesterday declared construction of a three-mile road in Gaithersburg an "emergency" so that the $4.2 million project would not need voter approval.
The Gaithersburg road was the first construction project considered by the council since the implementation of a new measure giving citizens a say in deciding whether the county should undertake major capital improvement projects.
The road also was one of two projects in next year's $300 million capital budget not automatically exempted from the new requirement under the guidelines approved by the council.
The charter amendment adding this requirement to existing county law won overwhelming citizen support in the November election.
The amendment left it up to the council to designate which capital projects were covered by the requirement, and included a provision giving the council the right to exempt "emergency" projects if five of the seven members agreed.
Last month, the council agreed that the requirements should apply to construction projects costing more than $4 million, but simultaneously exempted a large number of projects including schools, public housing, subway construction and parks.
"It was much easier to approve the principle of this charter amendment when we put it on the ballot," Council President Neal Potter said yesterday as he voted to designate the road on "emergency" project. "But it has been much more difficult to put into effect."
"The voters chose us to discharge our responsibilities in a responsible fashion," said Council Member Esther Gelman who agreed with him. 'If we see the defeat of this project as a threat to the entire planning process, we should remember that the (new) charter amendment is not the only law on the books."
"It clearly makes it appear to the public that at this point there is no charter amendment," said Council Member Scott Fosler after the vote.
The council declared the emergency after planners argued that the money is needed now to continue development of the project. Any further delays, they said, would prevent the timely completion of the road, which is designed to provide access to the Shady Grove Metro station.
Further, planning board director Royce Hanson said that if the decision could not be made for another 20 months -- the time of the next scheduled county wide election -- the construction of 2,000 homes in the rapidly developing Gaithersburg area would stop.
If the voters defeated the road, it "would leave us with development but no riads," he said.
"If they defeat the road, I forsee lawsuits from the builders that we have violated our own master plans, and at that point an emergency will certainly exist," said construction planner Jim Sayre.
The road, whose construction now will be authorized as part of the capital budget on May 15, is designed as a two-lane highway linking Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Village Avenue.