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  As Unification Nears, Takoma Park Residents Still a Divided People

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 1997; Page A1

At the stroke of midnight Monday night, forces beyond Elizabeth Reynolds's control will move her pink and green Takoma Park bungalow a world away, without shifting it an inch. By dawn, Reynolds and 5,955 other residents of this slice of Takoma Park will magically slide from Prince George's County into Montgomery County.

On that day, the divided City of Azaleas will fall, and the "unification" of Takoma Park, which has straddled the border of Montgomery and Prince George's for 107 years, will be complete.

While city and county officials work feverishly to figure out bus lines, plan a week-long celebration, decide where displaced schoolchildren will go and solve zoning issues, die-hard Prince George's residents are still trying to cope with a vote that they felt was the ultimate disrespect.

"I was perfectly happy living in Prince George's County," said Reynolds, who has lived there 12 years. "It's a put-down that people want to move to Montgomery County. I think there is a sense of elitism about it. There is a real distorted sense of snobbism about it."

Takoma Park is a city known for its quirky politics -- a place that gave birth to a crusade against power lawn mowers and a decision to allow noncitizens to vote in city elections. It has sat on both sides of the fence since developer Benjamin Franklin Gilbert bought 90 acres on both sides of the county line in the late 1800s and promoted it as a wholesome retreat from the evils of Washington. For 17 years, activists fought to change the boundary; the unification campaign was billed as a chance for one city and two counties to unite. Two years ago, the residents voted in a referendum on uniting in Montgomery or in Prince George's; they chose Montgomery.

"We felt ourselves to be in certain ways divided, because we faced two directions," said Ed Sharp, mayor of Takoma Park.

It is a coincidence that Takoma Park's unification and Hong Kong's return to China occur on the same date. On the surface, it seems that the Maryland city so concerned about the well-being of the world -- it has a Free Burma Committee -- will have a smoother transition.

"We are not planning to have several armed troops in riot control vehicles right across the border at midnight, as I recently read [about Hong Kong] in the Economist magazine," said Christy Huddle, a senior planner for Montgomery County. "There is no comparison. We have definitely had an easier time of it."

On Tuesday, the Montgomery-Prince George's line will be moved to the eastern border of the city so that all of Takoma Park will be in one county. On that day, nuclear weapons will once again be allowed throughout Prince George's as Takoma Park moves its nuclear-free zone to Montgomery. On that day, K.C. Liquors, a small liquor store with an even smaller sign on New Hampshire Avenue, will become the only private liquor store in Montgomery, where other liquor stores are owned by the county.

Although Montgomery County officials have promised they will try to avoid putting a hardship on businesses now in Prince George's, the change has left business owners like Bart Bartels, owner of K.C. Liquors, worried. "I don't know what to expect," Bartels said. "I don't know whether the county will put me out of business. They can do that with a stroke of a pen."

Montgomery County Council member Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring), who represents Takoma Park, said: "We have two principles. The first principle is the transition needs to be gradual. We can't expect people at the stroke of midnight to completely change the way they are doing business.

"The second principle is that eventually that section of Takoma Park does need to operate under the same laws that Montgomery County operates under."

Warnings like that leave Bartels more anxious. Two men, red-eyed and holding each other up, stumble into the store. They buy a bottle of liquor. "This neighborhood is highly transient," Bartels said. "A lot of people don't know what's going on. . . . The few I've talked to don't like it [the unification]. . . . It's the old story: If it's not broke, don't fix it."

Marc Elrich, a Takoma Park City Council member and a schoolteacher in Montgomery, still can't see why anyone would be pining for Prince George's. "I would have died if people in Montgomery County had voted to move to Prince George's," Elrich said. "There is a perceived difference that Montgomery County has better schools, better services and higher property values."

Kathy Porter, a Takoma Park City Council member, said she knows that Prince Georgians feel the vote is a slam against Prince George's. But "this is not a rejection of Prince George's County," Porter said. "We're coming together as a community. We are not rejecting anybody."

Suzanne Ludlow, the unification coordinator for Takoma Park, says Takoma Park residents of Prince George's should pay attention to those brown envelopes the city hand-delivered to every resident this month. The instructions -- in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Spanish -- told residents to prepare for immediate changes. They must change their driver's licenses and identification cards to allow for correct county coding. Anyone with car, fire, homeowner's or renter's insurance should contact those companies. Mortgage companies should be notified.

Residents may continue to dial 911 for emergencies; the complicated process of switching jurisdictions for 911 connections already has been taken care of by city officials. Takoma Park police will continue to serve the city, and those arrested will go to Montgomery County jails. Property taxes will decrease, since Montgomery County has a lower tax rate. Owners of a house valued at $150,000 will pay about $300 less in taxes in 1997 than they paid in 1996.

Students who are now enrolled in Prince George's schools may remain in their schools if they are not entering kindergarten or seventh or ninth grade. Students entering those years, which mean they would have gone to new schools anyway, must move to a Montgomery school. Students who remain in Prince George's schools may stay until they complete whatever grade level their current school goes up to, then they must transfer to a Montgomery school. Any student, however, is free to choose to move to a Montgomery school this fall.

Although Montgomery is still trying to get estimates on the number of schoolchildren who plan to stay in Prince George's schools, Montgomery officials have budgeted $400,000 to pay Prince George's for those students' tuition. Officials have budgeted an additional $1.6 million to cover the immediate impact of 556 new Montgomery County students, with much of that money going to pay for 25 new teachers.

So far, Metro bus lines will remain the same, but Montgomery County's Ride-On service, which runs only within the county, may be changed. The new routes won't be ready until fall. Property records -- including original titles and deeds -- will remain in Upper Marlboro until some new action on the property occurs -- a sale or lien -- then those files will end up in Rockville.

"It's really kind of a hassle," said Reynolds, snatching the brown envelope. The package lay beneath a pile of bills next to her front door.

"I didn't even open it, I was so unhappy," she said.

She sank into her hanging swing on the big porch of her three-bedroom bungalow. She looked up the street and talked about how different her neighborhood is. There is the man on the corner who refuses to heat his house with anything but wood. There is a house up the street that doesn't have plumbing. The park around the corner has a bridge over nothing and a cold spring with a rock carving of an American Indian.

"They can move the line," she said. "But they can't move what's here. It's still the same old place."

© 1997 The Washington Post Company

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