Mayor and Council to Regulate Short-Term Rentals & Vape Shops
At its Monday, March 27, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the annexation of 1201 Seven Locks Road; replace the Traffic and Transportation Commission with a Transportation and Mobility Commission; approve several regulations for residential rental facilities, room rentals, and accessory dwelling units; and consider a nine-month moratorium on businesses that primarily sell electronic cigarettes (vape stores) near schools. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are maintenance of the water features in Town Center, Courthouse Square, and Maryvale Park; authorizing the Maryland Highway Administration to enter city property near Winding Rose Drive to make emergency repairs to an I-2710 storm drain; renewing contracts for the purchase of fuel for city vehicles, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on the climate action plan and staff hiring and vacancies (nearly 60 staff vacancies, including 7 in recreation and parks, 11 in police, and 25 in public works).
In 2015, there were approximately 6,000 rental units in Rockville and there are now approximately 10,500 units, for an increase of 4,600 rental units. On February 22, 2021, the Mayor and Council discussed short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, and determined that the rental of rooms should also be regulated through Chapter 18 like other types of residential rentals. Chapter 18 regulates landlord and tenant relations and different types of licenses and leases, however, short-term rentals operate more like a hotel than rental property. Therefore, any existing short-term rental units in the city are operating without sanction or approval, because they are out of compliance with City requirements for renting a complete living facility or home. The City Council is considering new regulations that would only allow property owners to operate short-term rentals; require an annual license; notification of adjacent property owners; city inspection for zoning, building, and fire code violations; a limited of six adults at a time; no more than 120 days of rental per year; and two off-street parking spaces among other conditions and requirements. About 25 stakeholders have participated in two public hearings and a work session, and if approved by Council, the proposed Zoning Text Amendment will be reviewed by the Planning Commission.
More details in the 224-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_03272023-6849.
Mayor and Council to Choose Earmarks and Decide Upcoming Election Changes
At its Monday, February 27, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss proposed earmarks for the FY24 federal budget, requests from the Board of Supervisors of Elections, and recommendations from the Charter Review Commission. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are the preservation of public art, funding for the Rockcrest Ballet Center, Taste of Rockville agreement, and funding for the flood resilience master plan, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on operating budget and capital improvements budget for FY2024.
Yes, Congress is openly using earmarks again, “funds provided for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient.” For some, it’s simply another form of pork barrel politics but for others it’s a vital project. Perhaps the most famous earmark was by US Senator Ted Stevens to construct the Gravina Island Bridge or the “Bridge to Nowhere” for $250 million in 2002. But if you want federal funds for a specific project, the best way to ensure it is through earmarks. This year, the City of Rockville is considering several potential requests to Senator Cardin, Senator Van Hollen, and Congressman Raskin, including the emergency operations center at 6 Taft Court, police radio equipment ($1.4 million!), storm drain improvements in Potomac Woods, security for the water treatment plant, and water main or sewer main rehabilitation in an “equity focused area” (not identified but somewhere in southeast Rockville).
Preparations for the 2023 Mayor and Council election are underway and candidate information packets should be ready by May 1—however, there is still lots to be done. The Board of Supervisors of Elections is waiting for approval from the Mayor and Council on several changes to the City Charter and City Code in limbo; proposed translation of outreach materials in Spanish, Chinese, and French; adding a second vote center at Thomas Farm and placing ballot drop boxes in Montrose, Lincoln Park, and the Rockville Senior Center. Indeed, if the minimum voting age is lowered from 18 years to 16 years and the deadline for submitting nomination petitions is increased from 60 to 90 days prior to the election, the City may have already missed its ability to implement these changes for the November 2023 election.
Discussion of the 30 recommendations by the Charter Review Commission continues, this time on a more “precise, open, transparent, and definitive administrative process” for filling a vacancy on the city council after two years; adding a “none of the above” option on election ballots; increasing the size of the Board of Supervisors of Elections; increasing the number of ballot drop-off boxes; lowering the voting age to 16; and limiting the number of consecutive terms of council members to three four-year terms (but allowing a person to serve 12 years as a councilmember and 12 years as mayor—really? 12 years is plenty, give other people a chance!).
More details in the 450-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_02272023-6820.
Mayor and Council to Tackle Elections and Rental Housing
At its Monday, February 6, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss lowering the voting age to 16, permitting non-US citizens to vote, setting term limits, creating representative districts, changing the election year, and changing to ranked-choice voting as well as several issues affecting renters and landlords. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are North Stonestreet Avenue sidewalk improvements and city-wide bus stops improvements, among others. I suspect this will be a loooong meeting with these topics.
There are several major changes to voting and elections under consideration, prompted by recommendations by the Charter Review Commission. The arguments for and against each of these recommendations is too lengthy to even summarize here, so read the report for yourself online. At this meeting, the City Council will hold a Public Hearing to accept comments from residents and will then decide whether to move forward, stop, or send it to the voters for their advice (this last happened in 2013).
The Mayor and Council has decided to move forward with the expansion of City Council from five to seven members (which includes the Mayor) and will be reviewing the changes to the City Code at this meeting. As written, this expansion will occur in this year’s (2023) election (I’m unsure what will happen if the Council decides to change the election year to align with presidential elections).
On other matters, the Council will discuss the Voluntary Rent Guidelines, which includes a recommended maximum rent increase of 5.8 percent (in 2022, it was 0.4 percent). Secondly, they are considering radon testing for basement or ground-contact rentals, which follows Montgomery County’s requirements, and that the City be allowed to inspect rental facilities if they suspect code violations (currently, “property owners are not obligated to allow City inspectors to inspect the inside of the rental facility”).
More details in the 143-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_02062023-6800.
Only One “Very Best Restaurant” in Rockville?
Washingtonian magazine just released their annual “100 Very Best Restaurants” and it includes only one in Rockville: A&J Restaurant at 1319 Rockville Pike. Just outside of Rockville, they include Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown. I don’t want to diminish these honors, but geez, they’ve been listed many times before—is anyone at the magazine venturing out further? To provide some inspiration, here are some of my suggestions:
O’Donnell’s Market, 1073 Seven Locks Road, “Potomac” (officially in Rockville off Seven Locks Road, across from the Potomac Springs neighborhood). Among the best seafood in town and a very straight-forward preparation, and you can also buy fish and oysters, along with prepared side dishes and baked goods to take home.
Mosaic, 186 Halpine Road, Rockville (south end of the Rockville Pike, near Twinbrook Metro). The owner is from Lyon, France and it promotes itself as an “authentic French restaurant,” but more accurately it’s French-inspired. So they serve classics such as salad niçoise, duck confit, and beef bourguignon (alas with noodles, not potatoes) as well as a crab cheddar quesadilla, cajun shrimp omelette, and parmesan chicken picatta. Light, airy Belgian waffles dominate the menu and show up by themselves, in sandwiches, and the “bread” for entrees. I love ’em!
Java Nation, 11120 Rockville Pike, “North Bethesda” (across from the White Flint Mall, just south of Rockville). It’s an exemplar for independent coffee shops but it also serves terrific meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus wine, beer, and signature cocktails. The “very best” food doesn’t have to be expensive.
Il Pizzico, 15209 Frederick Rd, Rockville (north end of the city at East Gude Drive). Friends love this restaurant and claim it serves the best Italian food in the region. I rarely visit because it’s across town and takes me more than 30 minutes to get there. It’s in a dull office building and parking is limited but inside you’ll find meals that are a step up from the usual fare, such as tagliatelle al ragu’ di vitello or filetto di maiale al balsamico).
Any other suggestions that you’d consider among the very best?
Mayor and Council to Expand Mayor and Council?
At its Monday, January 30, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss increasing the number of city councilmembers and annexing 1202 Seven Locks Road. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are the purchase of three dump trucks. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on the Town Center Master Plan.
The City Council will consider the Charter Review Commission’s recommendation to add two new councilmember seats, which would expand from five to seven seats (which includes the Mayor). This meeting will include a Public Hearing to accept comments from the community before proceeding to a Resolution. In 2013, voters were not in favor of a change but the Charter Review Commission included it among their sixteen recommendations in September 2022 with the following commentary:
“Increasing the number of seats on the city council will allow the council to be more engaged with the residents and to learn more about the communities within the city. This could provide more opportunities for people to run for office and to serve their city as well as their communities, especially based on the increased size of the population since 2012. Currently how much does the council know and understand about the history and circumstances of the city they represent? If the number of seats increased from 5 to 7, depending on the outcome of the results from an election, parts of the city that are not represented as well as other parts of the city could be actively involved in city politics by having a seat at the table.
“Expanding the number of seats could have a possible impact on decisions that require a majority vote and could avoid a vote being deadlock because of the size of the council and not enough votes to move forward. Moreover, increasing the number could allow for the members of the council to meet with the residents where they are and not just when decisions are being made about the place where they live, work or go to school. In the past, each council member had a day set aside to meet with the residents who wanted to have conversations outside of public meetings. To continue this practice by having more seats on the council could allow residents to speak freely with council members who they feel understood their community especially when there is a need in the community or an issue that needs to be addressed. Ultimately, this could enhance the importance of consensus-building between the council and the residents.
“Finally, if council members engaged more with the residents outside the community they live in, it could provide more insight about voting on issues that come before them. So, expanding the size of the council can prove to really be effective for the city and its mavor and council.”
More details in the 97-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_01302023-6795.
Twinbrook Holding its First In-Person Community Meeting
On Tuesday, January 24 at 7:30 pm at the Twinbrook Community Recreation Center, the Twinbrook Community Association will be holding its regular community meeting—but it will be in person for the first time since 2020! The meeting will include information about Rockville’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program (how homeowners and renters can reduce the cost of protecting their home from flooding), a discussion on the expansion of the Mayor and Council from five to seven members, and recognizing Melissa and Tony Downs as Twinbrookers of the Year for their extraordinary support of Twinbrook Elementary School PTA and the community.
Will Mayor and Council Move Forward with Accessory Dwelling Units?
At its Monday, January 23, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss if they will move forward with allowing accessory apartments and dwelling units for single family houses. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are elevator modernization for 50 Monroe Street (NTE $470,000); purchasing of Tasers (“electronic control devices”; $213,000), and agreements for two Maryland Bikeway Grants, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on concept designs for the renovation of the outdoor pool at the Swim Center (built 1968, last renovated 1991; 2023 estimated renovation cost $9 million).
The City of Rockville has been exploring accessory dwelling units (ADUs) since 2019 and is now considering whether to move to the next step: developing regulations. ADUs are typically a second small home with a kitchen and bathroom on the same lot as an existing single family home. It allows more flexibility in neighborhoods with single family houses (the zoning that dominates Rockville) to accommodate different living situations more comfortably. For example, a grandparent could move in with their children, yet maintain a separate space (or downsize to a smaller home, allowing their children to move into the main house). Or as teenagers move into adulthood, they could have more privacy and independence while reducing expenses. Or it can allow a separate home office (businesses without employees or customers on site are currently allowed in single family neighborhoods). Secondly, it increases housing in a region that has a housing shortage without creating huge apartment or condo complexes. The homeowner can earn extra revenue, while the renter can obtain a more affordable and usually more comfortable place to live. So far, accessory buildings have gained the support of the Twinbrook Community Association, Lincoln Park Civic Association, East Rockville Civic Association, and West End Citizens Association and Montgomery County currently allows accessory dwelling units.
More details in the 182-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_01232023-6787.
Mayor and Council to Consider Changes to Mayor and Council
At its Monday, December 12, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the FY22 financial report and the FY24 budget priorities. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are a dozen items, including easements, services, grant agreement, and the tenth amendment to the interim management agreement with Morguard for Rockville Town Square, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on priorities with the District 17 Delegation and recommendations from the 2020-22 Charter Review Commission.
The Charter Review Commission has developed recommendations for a wide variety of issues related to the City Charter (its constitution), including expanding the size of the City Council, term limits for councilmembers, alternative voting systems, translation of election materials, the scope and size of the Board of Supervisors of Elections, and increasing voter turnout. After forty meetings and interruptions due to the pandemic, the Commission is recommending that,
“the City maintain the status-quo on several topics (e.g., staggered Council terms and alternative methods of advertising elections), the Commission is also recommending bolder changes to City policy and operations in order to enhance accountability and transparency, increase voter turnout, and advance racial equity and social justice. Notably, the Commission is recommending such reforms as an increase in the size of the Council, implementation of term limits on the Mayor and Council, creation of representative districts, exploring changing the time of the election, and allowing residents who are not United States citizens and those at least 16 years of age to vote in municipal elections.”
More details in the 465-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_12122022-6765.
Heard on the street: things are heating up in the West End neighborhood regarding design guidelines proposed by the West End Citizens Association. I suspect this is related to the 2040 Comprehensive Plan. A website opposed to WECA’s action can be found at PreserveTheWestEnd.com.
Mayor and Council to Review Latest Concepts for Rockville Metro Station
At its Monday, December 5, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the latest concepts for redesigning the Rockville Metro Station and allowing self-storage warehouses in an MXE zone. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are a CDBG grant application and agreements with local performing arts organizations, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on procurements for FY 2022 and an outreach program for minority, female, disabled, or veteran-owned businesses.
The Rockville Metro Station serves WMATA, MARC, and Amtrak, as well as Metrobus, making it a major transportation hub for the state—although it’s incredibly understated. A year ago, the City Council reviewed five preliminary concepts and wanted to explore four further (seems they had a hard time prioritizing). At this meeting, the consultant team is returning with their findings and recommendations on these four concepts:
- Concept 1: Iconic Train Hall with High Rise
- Concept 2: Town Center Station with High Rise
- Concept 3a: MD 355 Tunnel with Local Surface Lanes
- Concept 3b: MD 355 Tunnel with Surface-Level Open Space
The consultant team evaluated each of these concepts according to their ability to provide convenient connections to transit and safe access for pedestrian and bicycle users; create an attractive station environment that encourages ridership; improve wayfinding and integration of the site with surrounding areas; accommodate a mix of uses and amenities; and support economic development. Concept 1 scored the highest due to attractiveness, site integration, and economic development and might be similar to The Avenue in Baltimore or the planned station in New Carrollton. Concepts 3a and 3b scored the lowest due to the very high project cost (did the City Council actually think that placing one mile of a six-lane highway underground through downtown Rockville was going to be remotely feasible? What a waste of consultant fees!). After this meeting, the consultant team will hold two workshops with the community to review the concepts and the final report is expected in spring 2023.
U-Haul‘s request to convert an office building into a self-storage warehouse at 1355 Piccard Drive has become a dumpster fire and consumed more than 400 pages of the agenda packet. Seems they failed to obtain building and occupancy permits for their existing use, and have been parking trucks and equipment outside of a designated location. Recent complaints are supported by LOTS of photos documenting violations and noted that maintenance of the building has deteriorated so badly that tenants have left. Looks like U-Haul is a bad business and yet wants a special favor from the City. A surprising twist: the building is owned by the Montgomery County Board of Realtors (you’d assume they’d know how to manage a multi-million-dollar property). How did it get this bad? The Council’s efforts to reduce expenses in 2016-2018 left the City with only one Senior Zoning Inspector, which prevented pro-active zoning enforcement. Another example of “penny wise, pound foolish.”
Did you know that the Rockville Little Theatre, Rockville Musical Theatre, and Victorian Lyric Opera Company are considered RESCOs (resident community performing arts organizations). They receive reduced rental rates at the Fitzgerald Theatre in exchange for mounting a minimum number of productions annually and paying the City $1.50-$3.00 per ticket sold.
More details in the 743-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_12052022-6758.
Pandemic Resulted in High Subsidies for Recreation and Parks in 2021
At its Monday, November 21, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss financial management policies, annexing 1201 Seven Locks Road, and the new Comprehensive Plan. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are employment agreements for the Deputy City Manager and Assistant City Manager for Project Management, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on staff vacancies and hiring.
How much should the city subsidize Recreation and Parks programs, such as summer camps, skate park, or childcare, that are used by a small segment of residents? How should it manage donations it receives annually for the Holiday Drive and Senior Assistance Fund? At the upcoming meeting, the Council will discuss these and other financial management policies.
The City of Rockville has an extensive set of financial management policies that affect eight major areas: achieving and maintaining a structurally balanced budget, fund balance and reserve policies, capital planning policies, investment policies for both retirement plans and City funds, revenue control and management policies, economic development policies, and debt compliance and data analysis policies. For Recreation and Parks programs, the City uses a “five-tier cost-recovery pyramid” ranging from Tier 1 for parks, trails, landscapes, playgrounds, and general-use facilities with a 0% cost recovery to a Tier 5 for private rentals and private lessons with a 100% or more cost recovery. Fees and charges are reviewed and adjusted annually, but the pandemic lowered cost recovery significantly. In Tier 2, for example, the Lincoln Park Community Center is expected to recover 20% of its costs in 2022 (a subsidy of 80%) but in 2021 it actually recovered 3% (a subsidy of 97%). There are a couple of bright spots: Facilities Maintenance and Arts recovered more than expected (in other words, required less of a subsidy), most likely as well due to the reduced use of facilities and arts programs during the pandemic. A summary is available on Packet Page 34.
The Financial Advisory Board recently recommended that the City create a formal donations policy. The City receives less than one percent of its revenues from donations each year, which are accepted by check, made through the City’s website, the recreation registration system, and through the round-up feature with online utility bill payments. During FY 2022, the City received approximately $130,000 in donations from over 1,800 donors, averaging $12 for the Recreation Fund and $300 for the Holiday Drive. It also received two donations over $5,000: one $25,000 donation for the Holiday Drive and one $20,000 donation for the Eat Fresh program. Strangely, when the City explored this topic further, it discovered that a donations policy is not a common practice in municipal governments in Maryland. Geez, this suggests an obvious opportunity for embezzlement in government and I’m glad to see the City is thinking ahead. It’s a common practice in nonprofit organizations.
The big kahuna for the meeting (if not the year), however, is the progress on the Rockville 2040 Comprehensive Plan—the city’s “to do” list for the next twenty years. At this meeting, the City Council will review the progress on tasks that are to be completed in the next 1-3 years. This is an enormous undertaking not only to complete, but also to manage. These tasks include a zoning ordinance rewrite, updating the Town Center Master Plan, adopting a Pedestrian Master Plan, assessing speed limits on Wootton Parkway, redeveloping King Farm Farmstead, installing back-up power generation for critical facilities, promoting backyard composting, preparing a Flood Resiliency Plan, and constructing senior housing. Since the Plan’s adoption in August 2021, 228 actions are currently in the near-term completion timeframe, but are not yet completed or in progress; 43 actions are currently in the “in progress” status; and 19 actions have been completed. If you want details on what’s happening in the City or your neighborhood, start on Packet Page 89. Getting everyone on board and focused is a continual challenge, and residents and businesses (and Council members) always have new ideas—but time and staff are limited so establishing priorities is essential.
It’s also enlightening to see which neighborhoods are most engaged in the community. In October, the City distributed surveys about community needs and interests. Among the highest response rates were College Gardens (156 responses) and Twinbrook (52 responses). Among the lowest were Tower Oaks (1 response) and Lincoln Park (0 responses). I wonder if this correlates with voter turnout?
More details in the 152-page agenda packet are available at https://rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_11212022-6754.