Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New County Law Seeks to Control Synthetic Marijuana



A new Maryland law that took effect Oct. 1 to criminalize possession of designer drugs sometimes referred to as "K2/Spice" or "synthetic marijuana” was detailed on Sept. 30 in Rockville. Among those attending were members of the Maryland General Assembly who worked to pass the law, Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal, State’s Attorney John McCarthy, representatives of the County Police Department and members of the Eichler family that has been tragically affected by synthetic marijuana.

Also attending the event were State Senator Jamie Raskin and State Delegates Sheila Hixson and Craig Zucker, all from Montgomery County. Susie Sinclair Smith of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless and Carol Walsh of the County Collaboration Council for Children, Youth & Families also were present to explain how synthetic marijuana has affected people with whom they work directly.

Montgomery County Police and State's Attorney McCarthy have sent a letter to all retailers in Montgomery County informing them about the new law.

During its 2013 session, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law outlawing the sale or possession of the major chemical components of synthetic marijuana, classifying them as controlled substances. The products have been sold in smoke specialty shops and neighborhood convenience stores and, in some cases, were available for purchase with no age restrictions. Many of the products were sold in packages aimed at young users.

Prior to 2010, synthetic marijuana was not controlled by any state or by the federal government. Since then, states around the nation have moved to pass laws to criminalize possession of the drug.

Despite its name as “synthetic,” the product is made with natural herbs that are sprayed with synthetic chemicals. When consumed, it mimics the effects of regular marijuana. However, the chemical aspect of synthetic marijuana has sent many people to hospital emergency rooms, and in some cases, led to deaths.

“One reason that synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous is that buyers don’t know what chemicals they are ingesting,” said Councilmember Leventhal, who chairs the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. “Individual products can contain a vast range of different chemical formulations and potencies. Outlawing the possession of synthetic marijuana is the first major step. Now we must make sure retailers who may have been selling the products, young people who have been using it and parents are aware of its dangers.”


Hearing on Changes to Zoning Law Set for Nov. 12, 14


The County Council will hold a second public hearing on proposed changes to the County's Zoning Law starting at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 12, and continuing on Thursday, Nov. 14. The hearing will address proposed changes to the law recommended by the County’s Planning Board and by the Council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee. This hearing will give residents a further opportunity to comment on Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 13-04 and District Map Amendment (DMA) G-956.

Those interested in testifying at the public hearing should call 240-777-7803 by 5 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 11. Sign-ups are now being taken. Spaces are limited.

The PHED Committee, which is chaired by Nancy Floreen and includes Councilmembers Marc Elrich and George Leventhal, held worksessions every week in June and July, and on several occasions in September, on the Planning Board’s recommended Zoning Law Rewrite. The committee is expected to recommend amending many aspects of the text and map, but until it completes its worksessions in December, its recommendations are tentative.

The Council introduced the Planning Board’s recommendations on May 2 following years of the Planning Board’s extensive work and discussion with community groups and other stakeholders. The Council heard from more than 50 speakers at a public hearing on the Planning Board’s recommendations in January and has received extensive email and other correspondence from County residents as the committee continues to do its work.

The Zoning Law has not been comprehensively updated since 1977 and has grown to more than 1,200 pages over the last 30 years. The goal of the Rewrite is to reorganize and simplify the Zoning Code. Rewriting the code in plain language and reorganizing it into rational sections will enable residents to more easily participate in key land use decisions, and courts and agencies will have clearer rules to apply.

Although the County Charter calls for only one public hearing, the Council decided to hold a second public hearing because it recognizes the significance of the proposed text and map changes. Few changes are proposed for single-family residential properties, but non-residentially zoned properties and their neighbors could be affected. ZTA 13-04 would implement the text changes to the Zoning Law, and DMA G-956 would update the zoning for each property to apply a new zone. The proposed rezoning in DMA G-956 is designed to mirror each property's current zoning as much as possible.

Residents can see the proposed Zoning Rewrite, along with the tentative changes being considered by the PHED committee, at www.zoningmontgomery.org. Residents also will find an interactive map that enables users to determine the existing and proposed zoning for every property in the County.  Clicking on a particular property will display the development standards (density, height limits and setbacks) for the existing and proposed zone.

Written testimony or comments about the proposed zoning changes can be mailed to County Council / 100 Maryland Ave. / Rockville, Md. 20850 or emailed to all Councilmembers at county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov

Councilmember Floreen Reminder: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month


Have you had your mammogram?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Since BCAM began in 1985, mammography rates have more than doubled for women age 50 and older, and breast cancer deaths have declined. Councilmember Floreen, a breast cancer survivor, says that is something to celebrate, especially since one in eight women in the United States (12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in her life.

More than 600 Montgomery County women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Although Montgomery has the highest incidence of breast cancer in the state, it also has the lowest mortality rate. That is due in part to the fact that approximately 2,500 uninsured women receive free mammograms in Montgomery County.

“Montgomery County is fortunate to have many partners across various disciplines that not only raise awareness about the importance of early detection of breast cancer, but also provide medical and support services to those who have been diagnosed with the disease,” said Councilmember Floreen. “This month, we honor those providers and show our support for the mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and friends who have been affected by breast cancer.”

Councilmembers Elrich, Ervin, Navarro Lead Effort to Create Regional Minimum Wage


Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich on Oct. 1 introduced a bill before the County Council that will be part of a collaborative effort with the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County to establish a regional minimum wage of $11.50 per hour over the next three years. Councilmember President Nancy Navarro and Councilmember Valerie Ervin are co-sponsors.

A public hearing on Bill 27-13 is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24.

On Oct. 9, Councilmembers Elrich and Ervin joined Prince George’s County Council Chair Andrea Harrison and District of Columbia Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in a joint news conference at the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments offices to discuss how they plan to navigate their regional minimum wage through their respective local governments.

Councilmember Elrich announced early in September that he would be introducing a bill to raise the minimum wage in Montgomery County. Although Bill 27-13 would increase the minimum wage over three years to $12 per hour based on his original proposal, Councilmember Elrich said he intends to request an amendment to change the rate to $11.50 per hour to be consistent with similar bills that Prince George’s County Council Chair Harrison and District of Columbia Council Chairman Mendelson have introduced in their respective jurisdictions as part of an effort to establish a Washington regional minimum wage.

“Maryland’s minimum wage at $7.25 per hour is the equivalent of $15,000 a year for a full-time, year-round employee, and that leaves a wage earner and their family below the federal poverty line,” said Councilmember Elrich. “We are not talking about people who are trying to take advantage of the system—we are talking about people who just want to take care of their families as a result of the hard work they do, and at the current minimum wage, that is not possible.

“If we have a minimum wage of $11.50 per hour, it will at least be a step a right direction for workers, and in the end, everyone benefits. If people have a better chance of taking care of their own needs, they will be less dependent on the supplemental assistance that they now must have to survive.”

Bill 27-13 would require certain private sector employers in Montgomery County to pay the minimum wage to employees working in the County.  The bill provides credit for an employer who provides health insurance to the employee. The provisions of the bill would be enforced by the County’s Office of Human Rights and the Human Rights Commission.

“Raising the minimum wage is not just an economic demand; it is a civil right demand,” said Councilmember Ervin.  “The 1963 March on Washington called for a $2 per hour minimum wage.  Fifty years later, we are still marching and fighting for jobs and freedom.  In my opinion, we must combat poverty regionally by raising the minimum wage and creating jobs.  These are two of the best ways to help our working families reach their goals and create better lives for themselves and their children. I am delighted to stand shoulder to shoulder with our regional partners to help make this happen.”

Council President Navarro said establishing the minimum wage in a regional approach addresses the economic issues presented by living in the Washington area.

"Taking a regional approach to raising the minimum wage recognizes the high cost of living in the D.C. Metropolitan area,” said Council President Navarro. “Everyone deserves a living wage for an honest day's work. Passing a regional minimum wage is an important step toward ensuring every resident with a job has the ability provide for themselves and their families."

The County minimum wage would be phased in over several years. The rate would be $8.25 per hour on July 1, 2014, $9.75 per hour on July 1, 2015, and $11.50 per hour on July 1, 2016 per Councilmember Elrich’s amendment. During the phase-in period between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2016, an employer would be able to pay the prior year rate for an employee's first 90 days on the job. Beginning on July 1, 2017, the rate would be raised by any increase in the Consumer Price Index on an annual basis.

The County minimum wage would not apply to a worker who is not covered by the State or federal minimum wage law, a tipped employee or a worker subject to an opportunity wage under the State or federal law.

Transportation and Environment Committee Begins Review of Proposed Bus Rapid Transit System



The Montgomery County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T and E) Committee has started its review of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan. The primary purpose of the master plan is to identify the specific lines and approximate station locations for the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) lines within Montgomery County, as well as the minimum rights-of-way required for the segments in each line.

The T and E Committee, which is chaired by Roger Berliner and includes Councilmembers Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer, held its first two of several worksessions on the plan on Oct. 7 and 14. The next worksessions are Oct. 25 and  29 and Nov. 1.

Bus Rapid Transit would be a public transportation network in which buses with modern designs run mainly in dedicated lines.

The County Planning Board is recommending a master-planned network of eight BRT lines, covering about 81 miles and 101 stations. Two of the corridors--Georgia Avenue and Maryland Route 355—are each split into two segments due to their length, so the Draft Plan presents the system as 10 corridors. The BRT network would be in addition to the Corridor Cities Transitway, a master-planned BRT line between Shady Grove and Clarksburg. This system is considerably pared down from the 160-mile network of exclusive bus lanes proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett's Transit Task Force in May 2012.

Portions of three of these lines are already in master plans: Georgia Avenue North (Corridor 1) between Glenmont and Olney; Veirs Mill Road (Corridor 10) within Aspen Hill; and Maryland Route 355 South (Corridor 4) within White Flint.

The Georgia Avenue Busway and Veirs Mill Road BRT Line are in project planning by the Maryland Department of Transportation, funded with $5 million and $6 million, respectively, provided by the County. Project planning also is underway for the White Flint segment of Corridor 4, funded as part of the White Flint District West Transportation project.

Fundamentally, the Master Plan should make three types of recommendations for each corridor: the route; the general location of stations; and the minimum right-of-way needed. Even those recommendations will be considered as guides rather than prescriptions. A subsequent project planning study could likely indicate that a given route be diverted slightly to serve a major destination.

The transit corridors master plan also proposes establishment of several Bicycle-Pedestrian Priority Areas and the addition of a third track on the CSX Metropolitan Branch between Metropolitan Grove and Frederick County to allow for the potential for MARC rail service during other than weekday peak periods.
Prior to the start of the T and E Committee’s first worksession, Committee Chair Berliner made the following statement:

“This morning, our Committee begins its review of the Draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan recommended by our Planning Board.

It is as ambitious as it is necessary.  It would create, if all 81 miles along eight corridors were constructed, the most extensive rapid transit system in the country. For a community that has suffered through decades of some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation—traffic that is projected to only get worse not better—rapid transit is considered by our planners, the County Executive and the County Executive's Transit Task Force, to be our most promising, cost-effective option. Doing nothing is not an option.  Just imagine what it would be like—and what the benefits to our community would be—if we were able to describe Montgomery County as having the finest transit system in the county instead of the worst traffic

And it isn't as though we just thought of this yesterday. As Dr. Orlin's packet observes, portions of three of the eight corridors—Georgia Avenue, Viers Mill and Rockville Pike—are already master planned for rapid transit and more than $10 million of County dollars has been allocated for that purpose.      
That said, at the heart of this plan and our future work—and I stress the phrase "future work"—is a critically important, yet simple, concept. The concept is that, in using our scarce public resources—our roadways—we must prioritize moving people, not cars.  It is a ‘People First Plan’ in effect.

Like all of my colleagues, I heard both much praise and many concerns expressed during our two full nights of public hearings on this plan. And as a District Councilmember, I listened very carefully to the concerns articulated by my constituents, too.  But as I said at the beginning of those hearings, and as I repeat this morning, almost all of the concerns that have been expressed anticipate decisions that are not being made now, and will only be made after extensive study, public comment and future action by the County Council.

It is understandable why the community has these concerns. The Planning Board document "recommends" various treatments in addition to the right of way decisions, including dual dedicated lanes in the median, some single dedicated lanes in the median, some dedicated curb lanes, some repurposed lanes, and some mixed traffic.

We are not taking up those recommendations in this plan. In this plan, those recommendations will have the equivalent of an asterisk that makes it clear those are the Planning Board's recommendations, not our conclusions.  Those decisions will be left for a future Council after much more work is done by both the Planning Board and our Department of Transportation.

The Planning Board itself—and the plan before us—recognizes that it too has more work to do. For this network to achieve its goal, we must ensure that it performs well, and for that to occur, we need performance standards.  As the draft states on Page 63, "the Subdivision Staging Policy should be amended to incorporate standards for transit service in the recommended BRT network area that are consistent with the minimum level of service that would be provided by this Plan's recommendations.”

DOT has much work to do as well.  Before any treatment is ultimately selected, we will need to know what impact it has on traffic generally, as well as on specific corridors, and we should make sure that we understand the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

All of this detailed work will be done before a future Council decides exactly how and where rapid transit will be employed in our County. What we have before us now is a necessary predicate to doing that detailed analysis. In that regard, it is no different than what we have done for major roads in our County forever, many of which, like M-83, have been in our master plans for years, and then studied and given more precise cost estimates. And yet, no decision has been made on that project or many like it.
 
Our Committee's plan for addressing the issues that are before us—rights of way, general station locations and the corridors themselves, as well as any issues my colleagues raise—is to have a day of big picture discussion, then have three worksessions on groups of corridors, leaving one additional session for follow-up items.

We have asked the Planning Board to present its work, and for both the Executive Branch and the Transit Task Force to offer its guidance to begin this important discussion.”  

Montgomery Launches First Bikeshare in Maryland

Montgomery County on Sept. 27 launched the County’s Bikeshare Network with the first installment of 51 Bikeshare stations and 450 bikes in Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Rockville, Shady Grove and the Life Sciences Center area. Montgomery County’s Bikeshare program is the first year-round system in Maryland and is part of the regional Capital Bikeshare network, linking the County with the District of Columbia, Arlington and Alexandria’s Bikeshare systems.

The County Council and County Executive Isiah Leggett have been major supporters of the Bikeshare program.

"Bikeshare is an important step forward for Montgomery County and the entire region,” said County Council President Nancy Navarro. “The Council funded this project as part of our ongoing quest to reshape Montgomery County roads so they are safe and pleasant for residents to walk, bike, drive or ride public transportation."

In November 2012, the Council unanimously approved two measures designed to encourage the expansion of Capital Bikeshare to Montgomery County. Bill 25-12 allows transportation impact tax funds to be used to help fund bikesharing stations. Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 12-14 allows private property owners to more easily seek building permits for bikesharing facilities.

Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Valerie Ervin were the lead sponsors of the two initiatives. Councilmembers Phil Andrews, Marc Elrich, Nancy Navarro and Hans Riemer were co-sponsors of Bill 25-12. Councilmember Riemer and Council President Navarro were co-sponsors of ZTA 12-14.

“The sturdy red bikes are finally rolling into Bethesda, Silver Spring and Rockville,” said Councilmember Berliner, who chairs the Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee. “Bikeshare represents an important step in creating a Montgomery County that is less dependent on the automobile and more supportive of healthier, greener options.”

Councilmember Ervin said: “Since my arrival at the Council in 2006, the Bikeshare program and the completion of the Metropolitan Branch Trail have been at the top of my legislative agenda. I am thrilled that the Bikeshare program will provide Montgomery County residents with another way to bike to work or enjoy a weekend ride on one of the many beautiful trails in our community. The infrastructure needed to keep pedestrians, cyclists and motorists safe is also a priority for me and remains on the front burner as I continue to work on these issues.”

County Executive Leggett agreed that the Bikeshare program will have a significant impact on residents.

“Bikesharing is proving to be a phenomenal success in the region having recently celebrated its five millionth rider and we have no doubt that Montgomery County residents, employees, retail and restaurant patrons and other visitors will also be enthusiastic participants,” said County Executive Leggett. “Bikeshare is another cost effective transit option that can help reduce traffic congestion by eliminating the need to drive for short trips. We expect Bikeshare to significantly expand opportunities and improve the quality of life for all our residents. And, the special assistance available to low-income Bikeshare users will make this 24/7 transit option particularly appealing to those who hold multiple jobs or participate in job training programs.”

Several hundred people attended ceremonies unveiling the Bikeshare station in Rockville Town Center. That is one of the 21 stations in the Rockville, Shady Grove and the Life Sciences area designed to encourage low income reverse commuters and job trainees. Those who qualify will receive a free, one-year membership in Capital Bikeshare that will enable them to use any Bikeshare station in Montgomery County, as well as receive a free bike helmet, safety training and route planning assistance. These stations were partially funded by a $1.3 million Federal Transit Administration Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) grant approved by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board and $300,000 in local matching funds from the City of Rockville.

Other supporters of the Rockville / Shady Grove / Life Sciences Center Bikeshare program include the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; MontgomeryWorks; Montgomery College; The Universities at Shady Grove; Johns Hopkins University, Montgomery County campus; Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce; and the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce.

For the Downcounty Bikeshare program in Friendship Heights, Bethesda, Medical Center, Takoma Park and Silver Spring, the Maryland Department of Transportation provided a $1,008,000 grant. In addition, the Maryland General Assembly approved a bill that provides a $250,000 bond to the Bikeshare program. Montgomery County received a $112,000 funding commitment toward the cost of the Downcounty Bikeshare stations from Chevy Chase Land Company and $140,000 from other developer payments made to the Montgomery County Planning Board and dedicated to Bikeshare.


“We are proud to support Bikeshare in Montgomery County,” said David Smith, president of The Chevy Chase Land Company. “Its popularity and success in D.C. and Virginia demonstrates the importance of bicycling as part of an effective urban transportation network, and we expect that residents and commuters in Montgomery County will embrace this option.”


The Downcounty system will expand the reach of Metrorail, Metrobus, MARC and MTA bus services; provide low-cost transportation options in the most urbanized and congested portion of Montgomery County; help get people out of their cars for short trips; and produce environmental benefits while enhancing economic activity.


In April, Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation (MCDOT) signed a contract with Alta Bicycle Share to bring the popular Capital Bikeshare program to Montgomery County. The contract provides for equipment purchase and operating costs for the program.


MCDOT’s top priority is to ensure the safety of riders by locating stations in areas with safe connections to activity centers and other stations, including bike paths, bike lanes and sidewalks, or on streets that are less congested by traffic. MCDOT is working with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority on locating Bikeshare stations at each of the Metrorail stations in the areas to be served.


Bikesharing provides short-term bicycle rentals at self-service, automated, solar-powered docking stations sited at publicly accessible locations. Bikes may be picked up at one location and returned to another, creating a system that allows for one-way trips. Bikeshare is considered ideal for short trips of less than five miles. Trips under 30 minutes are included in the membership fee, while longer trips are charged based on their duration.


Membership options cost $75 a year, $25 a month, $15 for three days and $7 for one day. Yearly and monthly memberships can be purchased online or by phone, while the three-day and one-day memberships can be purchased with a credit card at any Capital Bikeshare station.


Over the next few weeks, the remaining Montgomery County stations will open. More information and a map showing installed stations in the County is available at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/bikeshare. Visit www.capitalbikeshare.com for more information on the entire regional system. For information on eligibility for free Bikeshare memberships and JARC program benefits, contact Montgomery County Commuter Services at 240-777-8380 or: mcdot.CommuterServices@montgomerycountymd.gov.