Monday, May 9, 2011

"Dear County Executive Leggett and Councilmembers,"

A May 9th email from Thomas R. Sisti to the Montgomery County County Executive Isiah Leggett, and the members of the Montgomery County Council:

Dear County Executive Leggett and Councilmembers,

In my prior emails, I raised my concerns about the Board of Education’s (BOE) selection of a second B-CC middle school site without notice to or an opportunity for our community, Rock Creek Hills, to be heard. This decision was based on the report of the Site Selection Advisory Committee (SSAC). In addition, I provided you with a discussion of the relevant county regulation and associated policy for long range planning, which explicitly calls for community involvement in the SSAC process, to demonstrate my view that the SSAC membership was unbalanced from the standpoint of member perspectives. Further, I informed you that I believe that the SSAC was subject to potential conflicts of interest, and thus, any site selection decision based on it is flawed. In this email, I am providing what I believe are examples of questionable statements and conclusions in the SSAC report that could have been vetted if the SSAC included representatives from other potentially affected communities, like ours, as members of the committee.

· Norwood Local Park – The SSAC site description eliminated this location based on the view that vehicular access is limited to only one road; that an historically-designated structure would have to be incorporated into any school design; and that “[t]he site not well-located within the cluster, because of its close proximity to Westland Middle School, resulting in two middle schools in the western portion of the cluster.”

What is not addressed in the SSAC’s description and conclusion is a comprehensive analysis of access from other roads. Although the report identifies pedestrian access from two roads, it does not distinguish that road access does, indeed, exist, even at the pedestrian access points. The roads identified simply have barriers erected to prevent vehicles from entering the park. In addition, the report fails to mention existing vehicular access to the park from Stratford Road, and it does not explore the possibilities access from Nottingham Road, which also is blocked. These roads provide multiple routes away from the school to Wisconsin Avenue.

Moreover, it is not clear why the structures mentioned in the report present a problem for the construction of a school. They appear to be located to one side of the lot, and thus, easily accommodated. Finally, with regard to the site’s location in the cluster, the school is close to B CC, approximately 60% of the linear distance from Westland to B-CC. The location is closer to the center of the cluster than western portion of the cluster.

· North Chevy Chase Local Park – The SSAC notes that this over-31-acre parcel is accessed only from Jones Bridge Road, “but the tract has frontage on Spring Valley Road and frontage at the termini of three residential streets.” Recognizing that the site is “well located within the cluster with adequate acreage, … Committee members expressed concerns with placing a middle school at this location because it would exacerbate existing and future traffic congestion associated with the implementation of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).”

On May 5, 2011, a representative from the Montgomery County Planning Board met with the Rock Creek Hills Citizens’ Association (RCHCA) to discuss the county’s Kensington Sector Plan. During this meeting, we learned that funding already is secured to address BRAC concerns, and that the intersection at Jones Bridge Road and Connecticut Avenue, as well as Jones Bridge Road itself, would be modified to address the impact of BRAC. The SSAC appears not to have had this information, or if it did, it did not address why these modifications would not be sufficient to handle school traffic during the day.

As an aside, during that RCHCA meeting with the Planning Board official, we also learned that the county Master Plan for the area did not account for the location of any middle school. The fact is very important to this discussion. The SSAC does not discuss the details of sector plans currently being implemented.

· Rock Creek Hills Park – In selecting this location as a site suitable for the new middle school, the SSAC stated,

This site is developed into two separate levels, which would require retaining walls to allow construction of athletic fields. Due to the topography, the vehicular access to Rock Creek Hills Local Park would be from Haverhill Drive, requiring two school driveways be situated in close proximity to each other. The site is surrounded by single family houses.

SSAC plan, then, provides not only a site selection, but also a site plan, again, with no community input. This plan for retaining walls(!) and driveways on an interior street, essentially commits this community to a location and orientation of a building on this site that, aside from disrupting the character of the neighborhood, could be unworkable and could undermine the community’s quality of life.

Years ago, when Kensington Junior High School (KJH) was located adjacent to the elevated soccer fields, it was not oriented toward Haverhill Drive. As shown in this topographic map, KJH was oriented to the outside of the community, next to Kensington Parkway, on the side of the parcel opposite Haverhill Drive, and, I suspect, for good reason. Haverhill Drive is not even a semi-circular street; it is a portion of a semi-circle containing a few homes. Moreover, it is bounded on both ends by large, triangular-shaped, traffic medians.

In the face of traffic from the east and west, two driveways on Haverhill Drive could overwhelm residents that live there and cause traffic congestion on all feeder streets crossing Rock Creek Hills. No explanation was provided for this proposal other than the statement that the parcel is developed into two separate levels. Nor was any information provided on the use of retaining walls for athletic fields. Our community knows nothing about the number and height of these walls. We are completely in the dark.

By offering these examples, I am not trying to suggest that any particular location should be the site for the new B-CC middle school. All locations I have discussed are parks, and there are significant policy considerations associated with the view that parkland is a free resource for consumption to build. Rather, I simply am raising significant, potentially outcome-affecting factual discrepancies that apparently were not addressed in the SSAC report, and I submit that the reason they were not addressed is rooted in the membership of the SSAC.

Three communities (Friendship Heights, Chevy Chase, and the Town of Somerset) were represented on the SSAC, and it appears that parcels located in the proximity of those communities (Norwood Park being one of them) were eliminated from consideration. Two communities (Rosemary Hills and Rock Creek Hills) were not represented on the SSAC, and each parcel located in each community was included for consideration. Had all communities potentially affected been afforded membership on the SSAC, at the very least, self-interest would have added discipline to the analysis, increasing the chance that it would comprehensive. Moreover, the process would have been fair.

Perhaps the best assessment of this situation was framed by Councilmember Leventhal:

The cluster is clearly in need of a new middle school, but I have been troubled by the lack of outreach and transparency in the process. I share your frustration that the Rock Creek Hills site was advanced by the Board of Education without a single community meeting. Rosemary Hills was given little notice of the site selection decision and Rock Creeks Hills was given even less. The rush to build a new middle school should not supersede the community’s right to be properly informed and provide input.

I agree, and from my perspective, based on the forgoing, it is clear that the BOE decision to locate the new middle school in Rock Creek Hills Park is flawed. We need another SSAC evaluation process with full community representation to affect a comprehensive assessment of potential sites. Thus, I respectfully request that you delay approval of the BOE site decision until the matter can be vetted with surrounding communities, like ours, and understood in the context of other planning activities for the adjacent and nearby communities in this area of the county.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Thomas R. Sisti

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