It doesn’t have the moral and political resonance of the District’s statehood fight, but some Bethesda residents are asking whether their prosperous suburban community should pursue its own form of self-determination — as a self-governing city.
They are driven by recent frustration with the Montgomery County government, especially over a proposed land-use plan that could open the door to dramatically increased building heights along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.
Last week, the Montgomery Planning Board approved a proposal for a 29-story office and apartment complex at Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street, just above the projected site of a Purple Line station. That project, and the rest of the Bethesda sector plan, are subject to County Council approval.
The chatter about breaking away is loud enough that two community groups, the East Bethesda Citizens Association and the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents, are co-sponsoring a meeting on the topic Thursday evening in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cafeteria.
“It’s just a question that’s asked so many times in so many conversations,” said Katya Marin, vice president of the East Bethesda group.
Organizers emphasize that the gathering is informational only. The crowd will hear from a representative of the Maryland Municipal League, a go-to organization on issues such as municipal incorporation.
The road to joining the state’s 156 other self-governing towns and cities (including Rockville, Frederick, Gaithersburg and Hagerstown) is filled with legal and political challenges. Most formidable is the Montgomery County Council.
Supporters have two ways to request a ballot referendum on seeking independence — collecting signatures from 25 percent of the area’s registered voters, or a combination of 20 percent of registered voters and owners of at least 25 percent of the land.
But it is ultimately the council’s decision whether to hold a referendum election.
It would not be easy for the county to give up its hold on Bethesda, home to many of Montgomery’s fanciest condominiums, single-family homes, restaurants and shops. The community is generally considered to be bounded by Interstate 495, Connecticut Avenue, the District border on Western Avenue and the Potomac River.
As an independently chartered city, Bethesda would receive a chunk of state income-tax revenue that currently goes to the county. And given that Bethesda boasts some of the highest-income communities in the state, the hit could be substantial. On the other hand, that loss could be offset, at least partially, depending on which services the new Bethesda would pay for on its own.
“Getting all those pieces to fall together can be really difficult,” said Thomas Reynolds, who is director of education services for the Municipal League and will be answering questions from residents Thursday evening.
Since 1954, there have been just five successful elections for incorporation in Maryland, the last when North Chevy Chase won its charter in 1996. A similar effort by Friendship Heights failed five years before that.
Largo petitioned for a referendum in 2002 but was turned down by the Prince George’s County Council. Rollingwood, a small community adjacent to Chevy Chase, was rebuffed by the Montgomery council in 2007.
Nevertheless, Reynolds gets a small but steady stream of queries. “Once every two years we’ll speak to somebody,” he said.
What those interested in incorporation may not realize is that it would not automatically give Bethesda autonomy over land-use decisions. For that, the suburb would need to change state law, which empowers the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to oversee zoning and parks.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said in an interview that he was not necessarily opposed to Bethesda’s incorporation. But he cautioned that it should not be considered in the middle of turmoil over a specific issue.
“I don’t think it should be done in the heat of a problem where people are angry about it,” he said. “If you step away from that heightened atmosphere, it would be okay.”