The following is the text of the July 28, 2015 letter from the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board to County Executive Isiah Leggett expressing local priorities for the County's six-year capital budget. The letter follows the Board's public forum held on June 22, 2015
The priorities were also the subject of a August 3 meeting held by Mr. Leggett with leaders of the County's five area citizens advisory boards. The Board was represented at the meeting by vice chair Scott Goldberg.
These priorities will now be used by County departments in assessing projects to be included in the County Executive's recommended Fiscal Year 2017-22 Capital Improvements Program - due to be released in January 2016.
Dear Mr. Leggett:
Thank you for this opportunity to provide our recommended priorities for your consideration as you develop the FY 2017-2022 Capital Improvements Program (CIP). As you know, the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board (WMCCAB) held a Capital Budget Forum on June 21, 2015. We were pleased to be joined by staff members from County agencies who could discuss specific CIP projects.
The Forum provided the opportunity for the WMCCAB to receive input on the needs within the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Area. On the basis of the information we gathered, we recommend that you consider the following two priorities in your Capital Budget planning.
1. Address the capacity challenges at our public schools
Attendance at our County schools continues to grow at approximately 2,500 students per year and capacity constraints are a critical problem. We recommend the County adopt proactive strategies to address the capacity challenges. Specifically, we recommend addressing capacity issues in the Walter Johnson cluster with an addition (with a set completion date) at Walter Johnson High School, to raise the capacity to 3200 students. All of the efforts to increase capacity at the elementary levels over the last several years will be for naught if the anticipated capacity challenges are not addressed at the middle schools and high schools.
Even with those efforts, capacity issues continue at the County’s elementary schools, with the many of our youngest students continuing to be instructed in portables. Accordingly, we recommend advancing the Ashburton Elementary School addition – designed to address the school being over capacity by over 250 students this coming year – in the schedule to be completed in the 2017-2018 school year. Ashburton is the most over-capacity elementary school in the cluster and moving it up its completion date to address this need is justified.
Second, we propose the dates set in the CIP for other school construction not slip. It seems each year, the school construction budget slides important projects to further in the future. The capacity challenges do not improve over time – they only will become more pronounced. Specifically, it is important that the new elementary school at in the Richard Montgomery cluster at Hungerford Park stay on track -- several elementary schools in that cluster are already over capacity.
Third, we recommend that the County more proactively plan for land acquisition. Most of the schools that have or will be renovated in the next couple of years have been built to capacity. Some schools no longer will have adequate space for sports or recess, such as BCC High School and Somerset Elementary School. We may reach a point in the not too distant future when renovations will no longer be an option to address the County’s public school capacity issues and new schools will need to be built. For example, a seventh elementary school is anticipated in the White Flint Sector plan for the Walter Johnson cluster. The land that has been proposed as a donation may not meet the requirements of a new school. We recommend that the County embark on identifying other parcels, setting aside funds, and exploring alternatives for funding sources for required land acquisition. When an opportunity to acquire a large parcel of land arises, the County would be better suited to assess the situation and, if appropriate, make an offer from a designated fund or funding source. Opportunities such as the WMAL property do not arise often but having a mechanism for addressing those opportunities in a nimble fashion should be the goal.
2. Focus on making our urban and residential areas more livable
Throughout the region, new development projects are underway leading to an influx of new residents in need of services and amenities. In Downtown Bethesda alone, current plans anticipate 3200 new housing units yielding more than 5000 new residents. We recommend that the County focus on making these areas more walkable, accessible, and livable.
We specifically recommend that funds for ensuring that there is adequate, usable green space in these urban areas be a high budget priority. Communities need spaces where children and adults can engage in recreational activities and neighbors can congregate. The new Bethesda Sector Plan draft highlights the need for green space but seeks to accomplish this goal with the vague idea that transferring density will incentivize private landowners to sell/give property to the County for parks. In some instances (e.g. expanding Battery Urban Park and the area in front of the Landmark Theater), relying on private landowners will be insufficient. More definitive goals with concrete action plans and funds are needed now to insure development levels, as set forth in the draft Bethesda Sector Plan, must be accompanied with usable and friendly green spaces..
In addition to green space, our urban centers - especially Bethesda and the Pike District - require enhanced pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and safety. Streetscape and lighting enhancements in these areas should remain a funding priority. Needs in the Pike District include completing the street grid and building dedicated bicycle facilities. Needs in Bethesda include the planned “shared street” concept for Norfolk Avenue, the much-delayed streetscaping of Wisconsin Avenue, and the proposed change of one-way streets to resume two-way traffic.
Finally, we urge the County to step up its residential road refurbishment project. Neighborhoods throughout our region require such road work – in our both urban and residential areas.
Thank you for your consideration of these recommendations.
Tara M. Flynn, Chair