Category Archives: Advocacy

Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study

The City of Annapolis Forest Drive/Eastport Sector Study, one of the “neighborhood” plans that rolls up in the city comprehensive plan is in full swing. There were a number of public meetings which I attended and a variety of presentations and work sessions with the Planning Commission, some of which I have also attended.

My main comments on the plan over time – the area is in general the newest part of the city and the most auto oriented as outlined in a prior piece on street grids – revolve around a bifurcated view of the goal of the plan. People who just pass through the area (both city and county residents) do not want any changes that affect auto mobility. They focus almost exclusively on the traffic engineering portion of the plan and only comment on the land use and other parts in so far as they don’t want changes that bring people and in their opinion, more cars. There is the other side of the street that would like to see the area more urban in nature with less emphasis on auto mobility and more on traditional urban development with a more human scaled setting for buildings, economic and residential activity, and mobility. It is this dichotomy that causes some cognitive dissonance in the plan. Strong Towns points out as a core principal that these two are fundamentally incompatible and result in a STROAD which we currently have. The worst of both worlds, people, auto oriented commerce and fast moving cars.

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Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern

Contemporary cycling in the United States is largely viewed by the public as a recreational endeavor. However, it was not always this way. For distances greater than that easily covered on foot, bicycles were the preferred mode of local transportation prior to the early 1900s when the automobile came into wider use. During the next half decade, bicycles were seen primarily as children’s toys. The 1970s and 1980s brought a new boom in bicycle sales for adult recreational purposes and this was augmented by the “Lance effect” in the early 2000s, introducing a large number of people to performance cycling.

As a result, most infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century was geared around this recreational aspect of cycling, primarily off road paths in parks, “rails to trails” efforts and even mountain bike facilities. It is only in the last 10 years that urban areas have started to look again at bicycles as part of their transportation strategy and to construct suitable infrastructure to implement it. By most measures these efforts have been fairly successful in increasing the numbers of transportation cyclists, but still not to a level of places like the Netherlands where there is upwards of 30% bicycle mode share. The United States will likely never achieve that kind of mode share if for no other reason than our systemic land use issues, but in areas where the land use patterns do support bicycle transportation, we can get to more modest shares like that of Portland (7+%). What actions can be taken take to increase this mode share?

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Why I Ride A Bike

A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016.

Let me get this out of the way: I am a bike guy. I love bikes, all kinds – transportation bikes, off road bikes, racing bikes and classic bikes.

But that’s not why I ride a bike for transportation.

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Anne Arundel County School Board Nominating Process

This letter was sent my State Reps Speaker Busch, John Astle, and Herb McMillan on February 2, 2016.


Dear Sirs –

As a 25 year resident of Annapolis who cares very deeply about public education in Anne Arundel County, I am appalled at the manipulation of the School Board Nominating process by the current County Executive with the assistance of Governor Hogan. Last night, I, along with many members of the community, attended the second public hearing of the second go-around of the nominating process to voice my concern over the additional unqualified candidates being put forward by the SBNC.

As I understand it, the rationale behind not having an elected school board is to assure that important stakeholders like the AACCPTA, TAAAC, AACC, and the Chamber of Commerce have a voice with the intent of making sure that interest of minorities, parents, students, business leaders, and educators are represented and that the process does not become purely political at the expense of qualified candidates.

Sadly, we were informed that at the December meeting, with a by-laws change that moved from super majority to simple majority approval (that was passed during a session when one of the community group members was absent), this ideal has been gutted. Not only were the candidates put forward last night purely political and not qualified, the votes were squarely along party lines. Only Mr. Boston whom The Capital outed as having a domestic peace order violation and being a failed teacher at Bates Middle was rejected, leaving a pool of all white candidates, none of whom have shown any interest in public education in the Annapolis area for which they are supposed to represent.

While we do not know who Governor Hogan will choose out of the candidate pool, we can assume that he will not pick Solon Webb since the Governor expressly passed him over in June when he was first nominated. This is a huge loss for the Annapolis Cluster of schools and the families who depend on them for the education of our children. Mr. Webb who along with being the only person of color currently on the board and left in the candidate pool is clearly the most qualified. Mr. Webb has been an excellent public servant, very attentive to the needs of the community, winning the endorsement of the Annapolis Education Commission as well as The Capital’s editorial staff. In my years of involvement with the PTA, he was very responsive to our issues. The new choices forwarded last night are clearly inferior: James Appel has never set foot in Annapolis High School – not one PTA meeting (which is very active with monthly nighttime meetings) nor one Coffee with the Principal (at 7:30am 6 times per year) despite having a child in the school. He has no education background and has serious financial issues that according to accounts in The Capital were misrepresented by Mr. Appel. His only qualification seems to be that he is a political appointee of Governor Hogan. Under the old super majority, he would have been rejected, however, he was approved with the Chairman providing the tie-breaking vote. Ms. Sasso has been a Real Estate agent and consultant – she claims to have been a high school principal in some small town in New York over 30 years ago (1984), but her responses to the questions demonstrated a clear lack of knowledge of current educational principles in general and AACPS in particular, and made offensive comments regarding teachers and unions, thus already alienating our teachers who are already under siege.

I am writing to you, my elected representatives mostly out of frustration, but with two questions: 1) Can anything be done today to encourage Governor Hogan to appoint the most qualified candidate (Solon Webb) who is supported by the community to represent District 30 on the School Board? 2) Can anything be done to fix the process so that there is any integrity left and to honor the ideal of diverse representation on the School Board? Every parent, teacher, and community member present at that meeting last night came away sick that something as important to our children and community as the School Board has devolved to a game of political football.

The public trust in the process is broken with this process that yielded this pool of candidates. What can be done to fix it?

Best regards,
Lisa Pline

Tax Cuts Are Devastation to Anne Arundel County Public Schools

On October 21, 2015 the Anne Arundel County Board of Education approved the negotiated contract between AACPS and TAAAC (the Teachers Union). The contract is a major hit for our schools. There are two causes for the problem. The primary is the artificial revenue shortage caused by the County Executive’s tax cut. The second is the deal that TAAAC made with the Devil, funding additional across the board pay increases at the expense for stipends for the one-third of our teachers in “challenge schools”. This is a direct assault to the passionate teachers in those schools who will receive a substantial pay cut and an affront to the concept of closing the Achievement Gap.

Below is my letter to the County Executive with copy to the County Council:

Dear County Executive Schuh,

I am writing to let you know my anger as a taxpayer and a tireless supporter of public schools in the Annapolis Cluster (PTSA leader and former AEC member) at the decisions that have led us to the completely unacceptable Teacher Contract.

The tax cut that your administration implemented in the FY16 budget has caused a self-imposed “financial difficulty” that will have a devastating impact on Anne Arundel County schools, specifically but not limited to Annapolis High School and all the other schools who work tirelessly to reduce the Achievement Gap and turn failing schools into excellent schools. The $19 million tax cut in the FY16 budget would have funded the overdue step increases plus challenge school stipends with some leftover to provide more revenue to our county public safety officers and county support personnel.

Being close to the school, I believe there will be a mass exodus of highly effective and passionate teachers from Annapolis High and other AACPS schools if we do not do something immediately to give them some expectation that they will have their pay restored. It was an absolute kick in the gut to these dedicated professionals that we thank them for their excellent work with a $2-10,000 per year pay cut! Parents are furious that the teachers we love are being treated so callously.

I understand that there is culpability on the part of TAAAC and I will direct some of my anger there as well, but I have been a small but growing voice in our community that believes if we want to compete with our neighboring counties for excellent schools and economic development, we have to provide the tax base necessary to provide those excellent services. We currently spend less than any surrounding county on our public school students and $2,000 PER STUDENT less than Howard and Montgomery Counties. The average salary in the mid-range is $12,000 less than Montgomery Co and $6,000 less than Howard. Is it a wonder that our best teachers are leaving our county?

I read your budget summary, so I am aware of your perceived political “mandate” to lower taxes. The idea that AACo is somehow over-taxed is one of those long-standing Urban Legends that we must dispel. We have the 22nd lowest income tax rate and the 19th lowest property tax rate in the state. Your argument that AACo has the 9th largest “tax burden”, only proves the point since we are the 3rd wealthiest county county in the state per capita. If we were taxed appropriately, we would have the 3rd highest tax burden. If that tax burden has been increasing, it only shows how far back our under-funding goes.

In next year’s budget, I urge you to move from being an expedient politician to being a true leader by recognizing the need to bring more revenue into the county to support needed county services, whether by income tax adjustment, tax cap adjustment or some other means of revenue. Educate citizens what their tax dollars are funding and I truly believe they will support the increase. Even the most ardent Tea Party follower believes that schools should be controlled locally and that government should provide public safety. Since that is all that County Government does, county residents should be willing to pay for it.

Best regards,

Lisa Pline
AHS PTSA Vice President

Does West Street Need a Taco Bell?

In July of 2014 The Capital published an article about a possible land swap between the City and a property owner in exchange for some land to reconfigure the Chinquapin/West/Admiral intersections. One aspect of that was the possible addition of a Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant at the site of the old Whiskey. I wrote about that in an Op Ed in the Capital. I’m not sure what has transpired with respect to the intersection other than I know SHA is looking at some options, but there is movement on the Taco Bell front.

Fast food restaurants in the City of Annapolis require a special exception to the zoning code and the owner has submitted an application to the Board Of Appeals which will hold a public hearing tonight (6/2/2015):

SE2015-001 – Special Exception application by Star Properties, LLC, property owner, and R & R Ventures East, Inc., business owner, to develop a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility, on property located at 1803 West Street

Below is my public testimony submitted for this hearing:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on SE2015-001.

I believe the request for special exception SE2015-001 should not be approved. My objection is not the product the business is selling, but the form of the building from which the product is sold. Fundamentally, a fast food restaurant and an associated drive-thru facility is not appropriate for this location along West Street because of the form of the proposed building – an automobile oriented drive-thru typical of suburban strip mall development – is not consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and as analyzed below, there is a very large opportunity cost to the City with this building form.

Drive-thru Restaurant is Inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan

In chapter 3 of the Annapolis Comprehensive Plan on Land Use and Economic Development, there is a set of cascading principles, objectives and opportunity areas that is directly applicable to this special exception request.

Principle 2. Infill development can occur, and it should occur in a manner that respects the size, scale, and use of existing and historic development patterns … Successful infill

maintains and/or restores spatial continuity to streetscapes; strengthens neighborhoods and commercial districts … introduces compatible uses that complement community attributes and needs.

Outer West Street is designated as an Opportunity Area for redevelopment:

This Plan recommends a transformation of the area, from an automobile oriented suburban commercial pattern to an urban character focused on residential development and commercial uses.

Specifically:

Buildings should front directly onto West Street with little or no front yard setbacks and little interruption of facades. And, It is recommended that the street transition to an urban boulevard in character with widened sidewalks, enhanced pedestrian and bicycle crossings, street trees, transit features, and street lights.

The typical drive-thru restaurant with a building set back far from the street surrounded by parking and other auto infrastructure is counter the these statements from the most general principle to the most specific opportunity area recommendation.

This automobile oriented development is decidedly not friendly to anyone outside of a car. The typical design of a drive-thru restaurant such as that proposed requires multiple curb cuts across pedestrian ways such as the sidewalk along West Street. Curb cuts can be dangerous to pedestrians as drivers fumble with purchased food as they drive out of the lot. Patrons wishing to visit such an establishment without cars must walk through surrounding parking from the sidewalk and most often cross drive-thru lanes leading to the establishment doors. By design this template is intended for areas where all people are in automobiles; for pedestrians, at best it is unpleasant or at worst dangerous.

A vibrant street life similar to what exists on inner West Street is created when people can walk and ride bikes along a streetscape that is interesting at a human scale. If we want to extend this to outer West Street as indicated above in the Comprehensive Plan, we must make choices that are people oriented. There are already examples of this along this part of West Street such as the mixed-use development at 1901 West, the new commercial development at 1730 West, and significant public investment in pedestrian infrastructure (sidewalks, signals and crosswalks). We need more development like this and an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant is decidedly not consistent with these recent private and public investments.

Fiscal Productivity of a Drive-thru Restaurant

Beyond the aesthetic and functional components related to the Comprehensive Plan, there is a fiscal component associated with the proposed development plan. An automobile oriented development pattern represents a lost opportunity for the City. Property tax revenue is the single largest source of revenue for the City and it is in the taxpayer’s interest to receive the best return on property tax investment by promoting development that maximizes the use of City infrastructure.

It illustrative to compare the return on investment for a given frontage by comparing tax revenue from two diametrically opposed building forms along West Street: a traditional urban commercial form on inner West Street as encouraged in the Comprehensive Plan with a low density automobile oriented form as is the existing condition on much of outer West Street. A typical Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant occupies approximately 30,000 sq ft. (for example, 3091 Solomon’s Island Rd, Edgewater). For the purposes of this comparison the inner West model is Rams Head Tavern and Theater and the outer West model is McDonalds, which is the same type of automobile oriented design as the proposed Taco Bell. Both are relatively similar uses (consumer-based food) and share about the same frontage along West Street, although the proposed Taco Bell is approximately twice the lot size. Using the existing property tax rate of 0.640 per $100 of assessed value, we compare the value to the city of the two diametrically opposed development patterns:

Establishment Land Area(sq ft) Assessed Value ($) Tax Revenue($) Revenue/Area($/sq ft)
McDonalds 25, 264 1,157,900 7,411 0.29
Rams Head (2 plots) 16, 192 4,661,800 29,836 1.84

(source: MD Real Property Database)

From a fiscal standpoint, the urban commercial form is significantly more productive per square foot than an automobile oriented drive-thru restaurant by more than six times. A building form that maximizes the available land – parking lots and drive-thru lanes do not “improve” the assessed value much compared to a building – also maximizes the return on investment for a given amount of the City infrastructure (water, sewer, streets). For a City that is continuously facing budget challenges, why would we want to encourage development that minimizes return on investment?

Conclusion

The most important aspect of development along the West Street Corridor/Opportunity Area, is the form of the buildings, not the businesses occupying the buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with national chains or prepared foods per se in this area, as long as the form of the building maximizes financial productivity and in consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Furthermore, businesses come and go in response to changes in consumer tastes and market demand, and a building that is not purpose built as a drive-thru restaurant is much more likely to be easily reused as the occupying businesses change. This helps make the area much more resilient to future change.

As the proposed form of the building is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan and represents lower fiscal productivity for the City, the special exception should not be granted.

Statement on R-33-14 Vehicular Access to and Internal Roadways within Certain Property adjacent to Aris T. Allen Boulevard

A very interesting Planning Commission meeting last night (4/15/2015). The agenda item of interest to me was  R-33-14, allowing access to a new development via the “highway” portion of Aris T. Allen Boulevard. This is a multifaceted issue dealing with prior annexation agreements from over ten years ago, transportation, development patterns and the wishes of existing residents.

My focus on this issue is not so much the effect on Aris T. Allen from a strict transportation point of view, rather that it is an unsatisfying solution to a much larger development pattern problem outside the core of downtown and existing older neighborhoods. The underlying issue is that new development is done as auto centric “islands” that are unconnected by design. This development model has the underlying assumption that people drive everywhere. While that may be unfortunately true to a certain extent, it results in a bad experience for anyone outside a car. It is also bad for drivers because that model promotes excessive driving and auto congestion, which everyone rails about, and as a result, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. One aspect to the proposed resolution is that if it is passed, access to the existing neighborhood would explicitly not be allowed. The only way in and out would be via Aris T. Allen. To their credit, the Oxford Landing association has said there would be pedestrian and bicycle access.

As you will see in my written testimony below, this lack of connectivity is endemic throughout the City. With few exceptions, developments over that last 10-20 years and planned developments (where I have had access to site plans) also show this development pattern. For example, the Hayes property now called “Annapolis Townes at Neal Farm” (location map, site plans), Crystal Springs, Reserve at Quiet Waters, and upcoming Enclave at Spa (map location) all demonstrate this issue. This unconnected development pattern is incompatible with a city and is not sustainable on any level.

Thankfully, the Planning Commission voted to recommend the City Council not pass this resolution. Most of the members felt as I do that this is just not the right solution to the problem at hand brought forth by the residents of the existing Oxford Landing neighborhood. Ultimately, this will go to the City Council for a vote. Stay tuned…

I submitted the following written testimony in addition to making a few comments in person:

As proposed, allowing additional ingress/egress to the section of Aris T. Allen Boulevard between the MD 2 interchange and Chinquapin Round Road will be extremely dangerous. Vehicles travel 50-60, even 70 mph down this section as it is a limited access highway. Allowing vehicular access from the proposed development will result in slow speed turning movements mixed with highway speed through traffic. High differentials in speed are the cause of many auto collisions and with speed differentials of 50 mph, they will likely be severe resulting in serious injury.

 Additionally, slow speed turning and merging vehicles will degrade the motorist experience because it will very much interrupt the flow of traffic. The fundamental purpose of Aris T. Allen Boulevard is to move vehicles quickly from US 50 to Forest Drive. Allowing a turning traffic with high speed differentials will reduce its effectiveness for the majority of people who use this corridor for the sake of a few in a small development. Furthermore, closing off access to the existing Oxford Landing development and requiring all ingress/egress via Aris T. Allen Boulevard is even more egregious because it will be impractical at best or unsafe at worst to get in and out of the new development unless you are in a car. Forcing pedestrians and cyclists onto Aris T. Allen Boulevard will be extremely unsafe and unpleasant.

 For sure, I am sympathetic to the concerns of the Oxford Landing residents about having the new development ingress/egress via Yawl Road. It is a heavily settled area and a fairly narrow street. That said, while this issue appears at first view to be just a “transportation” issue, it is important to view it in a broader land use, development and transportation context because they are intimately linked. In this particular case, it is not just an issue of access to a new subdivision, i.e. where do you route the streets, it is an issue of how the development(s) is designed and built including the mix (or lack thereof) of uses, the types of housing units and the local transportation network which have to be viewed holistically. We have made development choices in the City of Annapolis that have had very negative livability consequences over the last 30 years because of our tendency to silo these issues and address them independently.

 The newer development on the fringe of the City, specifically along the Aris T. Allen/Forest corridor has been done in a distinctly suburban pattern. By this I mean unconnected subdivisions with a hierarchical auto-centric road network. Cul de Sacs are most emblematic of this development pattern. I have written an extensive article on this development pattern (“Traditional Street Grids are the Answer For Future Growth In Annapolis”), which is attached to this testimony. To summarize it, we have allowed – and continue to allow – this auto-centric development pattern that has become de rigueur for developers since suburban boom of the 60s. It is this development pattern that is significantly contributing to auto congestion, unsafe streets and inconvenient routes for pedestrians and cyclists.

 This suburban development pattern is highly inappropriate for a city. People who live in a city want to walk and bike places because with the density of a city, driving everywhere is inefficient and impractical. In fact if you flip this around, the City needs people to be able to easily and safely walk and bike to function effectively in a vibrant way. The last thing we need is more auto dependence, as this is not sustainable emotionally, physically or fiscally. This means having neighborhoods with traditional connected street grids that provide direct access for people walking and riding bikes as well as driving cars. Our older traditional neighborhoods in the City – Eastport, West Annapolis, Homewood – were all built this way and all transportation modes coexist more or less. We did it this way for a hundreds of years prior to the suburban building boom of the 60s. There is a reason we did it this way: it works.

What is proposed in R-33-14 is essentially short-term solution to the larger problems created by this suburban development pattern. I realize there is a lot of water under this bridge since there is existing development there, but we have to start addressing this issue now before it gets worse. The more band aids added on top of the fundamental problem, the worse the problem will get. Practically, there may be some things that can be done by a developer to provide additional access beyond Yawl Road that do not include Aris T. Allen Boulevard. These are things the Planning Commission and the Office of Planning and Zoning can address during the review of this project. It may be more than a developer wants to do but if there is truly market demand then these accommodations can be made. The City should not let bad development happen in order to chase tax revenue from new development when it contributes to a long-term underlying problem.

In summary, R-33-14 should be voted down and alternative solutions should be sought for access to the planned development.