The Montgomery County Council, rejecting an appeal from the Takoma Park City Council, voted yesterday to begin enforcement next month of a 10-year-old law that will displace hundreds of Takoma Park tenants from illegal apartments.
The council, accepting the strongly worded recommendation of County Executive Sidney Kramer to proceed with enforcement, refused in a 5-to-2 vote to set a public hearing on whether to extend the law's deadline by one year.
It was the second time in as many months that the County Council was asked to delay the deadline for the conversion of an estimated 150 apartments that violate county zoning laws permitting only single-family houses through much of the city. The apartments, created in the housing shortage that followed World War II, were tolerated by county officials until some homeowners in the 1970s sued the county to enforce its zoning laws.
The county in 1978 granted the owners of the multiple dwellings a 10-year grace period, which expires March 23. The impending evictions have given rise to a bitter controversy dividing the city and now pitting county against city.
County officials say that the several hundred tenants who could be affected will be treated compassionately, while Takoma Park opponents of the law say that as many as 1,000 tenants in the apartments, with rents ranging from as low $100 for efficiencies to as much as $700, will be out on the streets with no place to go.
Council member Isiah Leggett, proposing the deadline be extended and the law phased in, argued that the delay had been requested by the Takoma Park City Council so an orderly, consistent program could be established. "Give them the time they say they need," Leggett said.
"The time has come," countered council member William E. Hanna Jr. agreeing with Kramer's argument that a delay would only prolong the agony and create false hopes that the law would never be enforced.
Kramer's position against delaying the deadline was conveyed in unusually strong language to the council by Environmental Protection Director John L. Menke. Consideration of a delay, Menke said, would be "over the strong moral objection of the executive."
Kramer in recent weeks helped to create a climate in which a delay seemed possible by saying he wanted to hear the position of the city government. "Local government is in the best position to deal with local issues," he had said.
Menke said Kramer considered the action taken by the city but decided against a delay. "The fact that he didn't change his mind doesn't show that he didn't have it open," Menke said.
Council staff members called the council's refusal to schedule a public hearing unusual and said they couldn't remember the last time the council refused to set a hearing on legislation that had been introduced.
Council member Bruce Adams, who voted with Leggett, called it "unconscionable." He said, "This is about real people who are going to suffer real hardship . . . at the minimum, these folks deserve a public hearing."
Council member Neal Potter said he was concerned about the process of government and noted that recent meetings in Takoma Park on the issue have been disorderly. The County Council, he said, shouldn't expose itself to that.
Takoma Park Mayor Stephen J. Del Giudice said he was disappointed. Reuben McCornack member of Habitants Opposing Mass Eviction, said tenants would step up a visible campaign of protest. Mitch Snyder, advocate for the homeless, is set to meet with the group tonight.
County officials stressed that there would be case-by-case enforcement of the law rather than mass evictions, and that tenants would receive all the assistance county government could muster. Menke said the entire eviction process could take from five to seven months.
"We can vote this up or down," Leggett said of his bid for a delay, "but don't suggest that we have been as compassionate as we should have been and don't suggest that people will not be in some way harmed by this and don't suggest that adding . . . additional months will in some way undermine the entire process."
Staff writer Beth Kaiman contributed to this report.