Council members Steven A. Silverman and Nancy Floreen have thwarted plans to restrict residential building heights to 30 feet to curb the so-called "McMansionization" of established neighborhoods.
For years, council member Howard A. Denis (R-Bethesda) has been trying to rein in the practice of homeowners tearing down, or substantially remodeling, existing homes and replacing them with larger structures that are out of character with their neighbors.
Denis introduced a zoning-text amendment in 2003 to change the way building heights are calculated. Currently, houses in many residential areas cannot be taller than 35 feet.
But because the measurement is often taken from the mid-point of the roof, some builders have been able to evade the limit by altering a roof's slope. Denis offered an amendment to reduce the maximum height of a house to 30 feet.
"The height of replacement homes is a major recurring complaint that I hear from constituents that reside in downcounty neighborhoods," Denis wrote to Silverman (D-At Large), the chairman of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, in April. "Nearly all of the complaints are from owners of older homes that are up to 2 1/2 stories tall, but are less than 35 feet tall. The new homes being built are also technically 2 1/2 stories, but in many cases end up towering over their neighbors."
The Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association opposed lowering the heights.
"Changing the height amount to 30 feet . . . would impact design adversely," William Kominers, of the building association, wrote to council staff last week.
When Silverman's committee took up the issue on Monday, it sided with the building industry.
Silverman, joined by Floreen (D-At Large), voted to retain the 35-foot standard. The other member of the committee, council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) was absent.
"Frankly if you go tour around some of these neighborhoods where McMansions are being built, I am not sure they are going to be less imposing if they were five feet shorter," Silverman said. "There is no public policy reason to drop the height down to 30 feet. It doesn't solve the fundamental problem of a very large house next to a much smaller house."
Both Silverman and Floreen were members of the End Gridlock slate in 2002, which relied heavily on campaign donations from the development and building industry.
A recent study by Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, a political action committee, found that Silverman received 71 percent of his money and Floreen 70 percent of hers from development-related interests. But council members dispute the findings, saying they are not accurate.
Silverman and Floreen did agree to several other amendments designed to clarify how a house's height should be measured.
But Denis isn't happy that the committee stuck with the 35-foot requirement. "The bill went in like a horse and came out like a mule," said Denis, who hopes the full council reverses the committee's decision.
Another Run for Berliner
Speaking of Denis, he'd better get his running shoes on.
As a Republican who represents a heavily Democratic district, Denis is expecting a fight to retain his seat in next year's election.
On Tuesday, Roger Berliner announced that he is forming an exploratory committee as he considers seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Denis.
Berliner, an attorney and Potomac resident, ran for the seat during the special election in 2000 but lost the Democratic nomination to Patricia S. Baptiste. Denis went on to defeat Baptiste.
In a statement, Berliner said it's time the district -- which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac -- reject the GOP.
"I believe our community would be better served if District 1 were represented by a true-blue Democrat supportive of smarter, greener growth; innovative mass transportation; and education," he said. "I am convinced that District 1 voters are prepared to support a Democrat grounded in these values in 2006."
Berliner, a former Capitol Hill staffer, specializes in energy-related law issues and was a leading critic of Enron's policies, according to his biography. He is also outside legal counsel to Los Angeles County.
Duncan on the Stump
At least on paper, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) appears to have had a scheduling conflict this week.
On Monday, Duncan's county staff put out his official weekly schedule, which documents where he is going in his role as county executive.
The schedule indicates Duncan will be out of the county attending a Maryland Municipal League conference in Ocean City on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
A few hours later, Duncan's campaign issues a schedule outlining his stops this week in his all-but-declared bid for governor.
That schedule implies Duncan won't be too focused on his job as county executive while in Ocean City. Instead, the campaign says, Duncan will be on "a four-day Eastern Shore tour that will include visits to Dorchester, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester Counties."
Yesterday, for example, Duncan's campaign schedule puts him in Talbot County, about an hour northwest of Ocean City, so he can "meet with local elected officials, tour downtown Easton with business leaders, speak to the Talbot County Democratic Central Committee and attend a private dinner."
When asked about the apparent discrepancy, Duncan spokesman David Weaver said there was none.
"Both calendars list he is going to be attending the Maryland Municipal League conference," Weaver said. "But while he is on the Eastern Shore he has also built in some time to meet local Democratic leaders and continue his listening and learning tour."
On the campaign trail, Duncan routinely goes out of his way to note -- often to the surprise of listeners -- that Montgomery County isn't just white and wealthy anymore.
Now, Duncan and other residents and elected officials trying to dispel other notions of Montgomery have an additional piece of ammunition to use their in speeches.
The County Council Office of Legislative Oversight released a report this week on the school system's language assistance services.
The report found that 9 percent of students enrolled in the school system are trying to learn English. It also said 44 percent of students in the state's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs reside in Montgomery.
The Montgomery Blair cluster, which is Montgomery Blair High School and its feeder elementary and middle schools, has the most ESOL students in the county -- 1,595.
The Poolesville High School cluster, located in rural western part of the county, has 22 students enrolled in ESOL programs.
The ESOL students in Montgomery have 161 different ethnic origins and speak 144 primary languages, including Mandarin, Farsi, Twi, Ewe, Swedish, Susu, Loma, Obu, Mizo, Telugu, Koranko, Lao, Norwegian, Finnish, Fang, Fijian, Flemish, Kisse, Pamil, Trukese, Tongan, Zulu, Polish, Nepali, Serbian, Dutch, Bassa, Wolof, Tibetan, Marathi and Kikuyu.
And, despite arguments by some that the diversity in Montgomery County schools bolsters the case for immigration reform and tighter border security, 41 percent of the county's ESOL students were born in the United States.
"Their parents have been here for a while and they are not leaving for a while because their children are American citizens," said County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), adding that people will just have to "get used to the fact" that the county is growing more diverse.
Springing for a New Slogan?
Revitalizing a place means convincing people that the old is new again. And how better to do that than with some colorful signs and a catchy promotional campaign?
The thing about signs and campaigns is that some people aren't going to like them: Some people will think they are goofy or inappropriate.
So it has proved with Montgomery County's effort to renew Silver Spring -- or, "Silver SprUng" as the county's year-old ad campaign would have it. For months, some residents have groused about the campaign, saying that the choice of the past tense makes it seem as if the renewal has been completed.
Others have observed that they hope that parts of the downtown remain "unsprung" so that the area's character is not diluted by chain stores.
U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, visiting Silver Spring last week to help open an "arts alley" that is part of the redevelopment, offered his own gentle critique. He noted that there are "buses running around saying Silver SprUng."
"I think frankly," he added, "they should say 'Silver Springing' myself, because it's an ongoing process."
Susan Hoffman, marketing and communications manager in the county's Silver Spring office, says "there has been lots of buzz and lots of talk" about the campaign, which cost $300,000, half of which came from county coffers. "So we absolutely consider it a success."
The County Council Public Safety Committee will hold a public hearing next Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the County Council Building to get feedback on a controversial proposal to require that dogs be on leashes while in public.
"If people don't show up, no barking about what we do," Perez said at Tuesday's council meeting.