It was 2:15 p.m. on Sept. 15 when Montgomery County Council President Rose Crenca gaveled the public hearing open to the sounds of people settling into their seats, the rustling of dozens of pages of paper and, from the back of the room, the chatter of a small child.
Nine hours later, with the first day of hearings on Silver Spring's future winding down and emotions running ragged, the sound from the back of the room was an angry exchange of words between two attorneys for a developer and two Silver Spring residents.
The attorneys had been bothered by an undercurrent of heckling during their presentation and had said so to the residents, who in turn felt unfairly accused. Neither of the attorneys, veterans of many development battles, could remember a similar incident, and a council aide had to ask for quiet.
Those sounds, bracketing a day of rhetoric and emotion, underscored the observation made by council Vice President Michael L. Subin that the council's public hearings are as much theater as anything else. Drama and comedy vie with the testimony.
For those who missed last week's marathon of public hearings, here are some scenes that did not make the headlines but nonetheless highlighted the sessions:
Much of the testimony had to do with how run-down, how deteriorated and generally how ugly Silver Spring is. Well, countered Marc Elrich, a member of the Silver Spring-Takoma Traffic Coalition, which opposes County Executive Sidney Kramer's redevelopment plans, if Elrich lives in such a rotten place, how come his taxes are so high? Elrich put the council on notice that he is collecting every one of the comments about Silver Spring's supposed deterioration to take to the tax assessor.
"If I live in a slum, I want to be taxed like one," he said.
Fred and David Burka, the father-son owners of the old Silver Theatre and adjoining shopping center, had just finished testifying in favor of extensive redevelopment of downtown when the time came for questions from council members.
Bruce T. Adams leaned forward and, gazing intently, asked the Burkas if they were the ones who had removed the grand Art Deco sign from the theater's marquee in 1984 as the building was being considered for historic status. The Burkas had refused to comment when the sign was taken down, a move called cultural vandalism by some.
The Burkas, obviously put on the spot by Adams' direct questioning, said that they did not know exactly what happened to the sign but that it was probably destroyed by the contractor on his own initiative. The Burkas conceded that they removed the sign to knock out debate on the theater's historical significance but protested that they are neither vandals nor money-grubbers. Adams countered that the move did not show a lot of respect for the community.
There were signs -- "Say NO to gridlock in Silver Spring," "Isn't one Bethesda enough?" -- and buttons -- "Renew Silver Spring." But for pure showmanship, the award goes to the Art Deco Society, which produced a telegram from Silver Spring native Goldie Hawn.
"My memories are precious to me, and when I think that the old Silver Theatre and shopping center, in my home town, is in jeopardy, a little part of me dies," Hawn wrote.
The conventional wisdom in sizing up the council and how it might vote is that Crenca, a Flower Avenue resident who lives smack in the middle of the controversy, is the key to the council's decision. Crenca has publicly stayed firmly on the fence, and it is anyone's guess where she will land when the council takes its vote.
Crenca may be on the spot, but she is never at a loss for words. In making a plea to Crenca, Traffic Coalition President Pat Singer drew a comparison between herself -- leading the charge against what she considers unlimited development -- and Crenca, who got her start as a civic activist in Silver Spring. No, Crenca said, "You are much better behaved."
Early in the hearings, as Policy and Planning Director Meg Riesett was being grilled by the council, one member of the planning board staff turned to a reporter and said: "Sit back and watch. This is democracy in action."
And, if you can believe the words of one neutral observer -- Paul Grachow of Deposition Services, which tapes the hearings for the public record -- the hearing was his first; it was fun.
"It sure wasn't boring," he said as he packed up his gear. In fact, he said, it was better than some television shows he has seen.