2003 Year in Review

2003 Year in Review

The Weather

After several years of drought, the region was nearly overwhelmed by precipitation this year.

The normal annual precipitation recorded in the Washington area is 39.35 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

In 2003, Dulles Airport, where the official totals are recorded, received 60.84 inches. The record high for the Washington region was 61.33 inches, set in 1889. The driest year was 1930 when only 21.66 inches fell.

The region was blanketed by snow in the first months of the year. Schools were closed, at one point for an entire week, because of the storms. Schools were closed so often that the state took the rare step of allowing schools across the state to be open two fewer than the 180 days mandated by law. Still, the school were open on holidays March 19, April 21 and June 19 and 20 to make up the lost days.

The major difference between winter and spring was that the water which fell was no longer frozen. Through spring and summer, persistent rains left many residents wondering if they should begin to build an ark.

Hundreds of uprooted trees looked like wreckage from a tornado, but it was actually a “micro-blast” with hail and thunderstorms that ripped through Potomac late at night on June 30. A channeled zone of wreckage through Chevy Chase and Potomac included smashed windows at the Potomac Village Safeway, a crumbled cinderblock property wall along Riverwood Road and a confetti-like covering of shredded leaves on area roads. Congressional Country Club and the Tournament Players Club at Avenel were especially hard-hit, with 96 fallen trees at Congressional and 23 large trees blown down at Avenel.

In late August a series of thunderstorms came through knocking out power to much of Potomac and Montgomery County, some for five days.

Students at 33 county schools including Potomac Elementary, Pyle Middle and Wootton High, were closed on Aug. 27, the second day of the 2003-04 school year.

In September, Hurricane Isabel blew through. The storm was substantially weakened by the time it hit the Potomac area but it was still strong enough to knock out power to 219,000 of Pepco’s 286,000 customers in Montgomery County, in some cases for a week.

The hurricane dumped enough water to raise the Potomac River to flood stage.

Flooding washed out some sections of the towpath of the C&O Canal for a brief period, but no major damage was reported.

Power Play

Losing power, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days, became commonplace in Potomac in 2003.

In an area like Potomac, where many residents depend on well water which does not work in the absence of power, a loss of power can mean more than dinner by candlelight.

The extreme weather may provide some reasons for the persistent power outages. Near constant rain softened the ground, and Potomac’s canopy of old trees, with large branches overhanging power lines, is partly to blame.

Increasingly, however, residents and government officials are looking to Pepco for answers. Many feel that the utility, which holds a monopoly on the power lines, is shirking its maintenance duties. Others are upset at the way they are treated by company representatives and an apparent lack of remorse and failure to accept responsibility for the outages.

The state Public Service Commission is in the process of investigating Pepco’s practices, but no final action is expected until late 2004.

County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) was a leader in developing a regional “Power Summit,” scheduled for January of 2004. The area’s various local governments and representatives from power companies across the region are expected to discuss a range of issues, including how to stop the lights from going off.

The Annual Growth Policy

County Council, in revising the way the it manages growth and new development, implemented new “impact taxes,” ranging from $13,500 to $17,500 in Potomac, per new single family house depending on its size, to help pay for road and school construction.

The Annual Growth Policy is an issue which doesn’t make interesting sound bites, but carries tremendous weight. Through the County’s Annual Growth Policy, the county seeks to administer its Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. The Ordinance, adopted in 1973, states that if an area of the county does not have adequate infrastructure, primarily roads and schools, to support a new development, then the development may not go forward.

The Annual Growth Policy, adopted in 1986, defines “adequate.”

The former growth policy measured both traffic congestion and crowded schools, but provided enough loopholes that the test almost always showed there was room for more development. For example, no new development failed the transit test in its 13 years of use.

The schools test counted the amount of space in a school, and the number of students projected to fill that space. If a school did not have sufficient space, it could “borrow” capacity from an adjacent school. Only one school cluster ever failed this test.

In the recently adopted Annual Growth Policy, the transportation test was removed and the practice of “borrowing” was eliminated at the elementary and middle school levels.

Coupled with these changes are the “Impact Taxes.”

As a result of the new policy, development will be allowed to continue at whatever pace the market dictates, but is projected to raise approximately $25 million for schools construction and $20 million for road construction in Fiscal Year 2005, its first full year in effect.

Big Land, Big Houses

Potomac saw many developments approved, ranging from five or six houses to sprawling suburban developments eating up hundreds of acres.

Some of these projects result in 100+ acre tracts of land winning approval to become subdivisions sprouting large homes in former pastures.

What had been known as Hunt View Farms, a 102-acre horse stable and pick-your-own pumpkin patch on Stoney Creek Road, will become 34 new homes.

The area known as Greenbriar Estates is also being developed. As part of a deal with the county, four property owners agreed to cluster the 62-house development in one section of the 140-acre tract in order to leave 65 acres of open space. The area where this is being developed is known as the serpentinite barrens, a globally rare ecology.

Truck Stays Put

The first major story of the year involved the fire service. As a result of a budget shortfall in county government, all departments were asked to trim money from their budget. As part of his plan, County Fire Administrator Gordon Aoyagi proposed removing the ladder truck from Cabin John Volunteer Fire Department, Station 10 on River Road, which serves Potomac and Bethesda.

The staff for the ladder truck would also have been cut, leaving the Swift Water Rescue Team understaffed as well. All other equipment at the station is owned by the volunteers who serve at the station.

Aoyagi also proposed closing a station in Kensington and removing other pieces of firefighting apparatus from service.

The citizens of Potomac, and the rest of the county, were generally opposed to the potential negative impact this would have on response times.

Ultimately, Cabin John kept the truck and its associated staff members, and the budget cuts came in the form of administrative changes.

Clipper Sinks

The Canal Clipper, which for about 30 years allowed visitors to the C&O Canal to take a ride in the canal’s water, sank this year.

When park rangers were preparing the Clipper for its maiden voyage this year, they found a leak in its hull. Despite attempts to repair the hole, rangers determined that the clipper was no longer safe for passengers.

The cost of a new clipper was estimated at $1 million by park officials, a sum not likely to be found in the federal budget very soon. Until a new boat is purchased, people who want to ride in a canal boat will have to travel to Georgetown, where a boat is still in service.

The Techway

The Techway or Second River Crossing continued into its nine lives during 2003.

In the fall of 2000, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) secured $2 million in Federal transportation funds to study the feasibility of building a new bridge across the Potomac River. But Wolf asked that his study be canceled in May of 2001.

"How many homes are you willing to take out to build a bridge? 100? 200? 300, 400, 500? Wolf asked. "If you find a place to build a bridge, show me."

Some business groups and elected officials still push for a bridge across the Potomac upstream from the American Legion Bridge and an accompanying four or six lane highway.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) met with Va. Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) on April 28 to affirm their support to initiate a new Techway study.

At the meeting, Ehrlich pledged $400,000 complementing the $400,000 in Virginia's six-year transportation plan earmarked for a Techway study.

Kevin Hall, Warner's deputy press secretary, said the two states could now finance an $800,000 study which "frankly should allow both states to do origination and destination studies, plot traffic patterns in the region."

The Virginia Department of Transportation initiated an “Origin and Destination” study during the last two weeks of October. Photos of license plates of cars were taken as they crossed the bridge, and at several other exits along the Beltway in an attempt to discern traffic patterns.

Opponents say this is just a first step toward a larger Techway study.

Two bills proposed during the 2003 General Assembly were also thought to be a prelude to a Techway.

The Public Private Transportation Act of 2003 would have allowed public-private partnerships to build highway projects.

Opponents feared that builders would be able to skirt some environmental regulations and other processes and put in projects despite opposition from the surrounding community.

The bill passed in the Senate (SB 497) — Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) voted for it and Sen. Brian Frosh (D-16) against — but died in committee in the House (HB 1162).

The second bill, a joint resolution to create a Regional Transit Authority never came to a vote in either chamber. Opponents feared that such an authority would be able to override local zoning laws and community opposition.

Members of the Montgomery County Council — which is unanimously opposed to a second river crossing in Montgomery Count — and the Frederick County Board of Commissioners met on Nov. 6. Both bodies are united in the belief that any new crossing should be placed at Point of Rocks, which connects U.S. 15 in Maryland with U.S. 15 in Virginia. There is already a bridge there.

"We have the right-of-ways in place," said Frederick Commissioner Brude Reeder (D-At large).

But Robert Flanagan, Maryland's Secretary of Transportation who also attended the November meeting, said the state is not interested in a new bridge.

"We are not planning, in any way or form whatsoever, a new crossing," Flanagan said.

Stay tuned.

Sewer Service as Zoning

Sewage is easily one of the least sexy issues of 2003. Of course, that means it must be one of the most important.

Sewer service is a “back-door” check on land use. An area may be zoned for one house per two acres, but as a result of stream buffers or soil composition, may only have room for one septic field in five or 10 acres. If a sewer line is put in, the land can be subject to more intense development.

A house on Boswell Lane applied for sewer service last year and it was granted by a lame-duck County Council, even though it violated the Potomac Master Plan and the Piney Branch Restricted Access Policy, and even though there was no public hearing.

The state denied extension of sewer to the property, because it violated the Master Plan, and WSSC denied it because they did not like the approved alignment.

Another house on Boswell Lane applied for a sewer line this year, because of a failing septic system. A sewer extension was approved to that house, but the alignment had not yet been determined.

The County Council also enacted a provision that will not allow lame-duck Councils to make sewer changes in the future.

Maryland Loses Supreme Court Case

Disputes between Maryland and Virginia over rights to the Potomac River date back to the states' original charters issued almost 400 years ago.

The Supreme Court ruled Dec. 9 that Virginia and its citizens have the right to build water intake pipes — and to make improvements on its shores — without seeking approval from Maryland.

The case is not subject to appeal.

"Maybe now, Maryland and Virginia will be forced into doing something that first and second graders learn to do — share," said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Society. "They are going to have to get together and decide how to share this resource."

In 1996, Fairfax County Water Authority asked the state of Maryland, which owns the river, for a permit to build a $10 million water intake pipe that extends 725 feet into the middle of the Potomac from the Virginia shore. The intake pipe will help provide drinking water to 1.2 million in Northern Virginia.

Maryland Department of the Environment initially denied the permit for the pipe, but later approved it in 2001, after Virginia filed a Bill of Complaint with the Supreme Court. The pipe was completed in the spring of 2003.

Virginia pushed forward with its case, asking the Supreme Court to relieve its citizens from Maryland's water construction permit system.

"Is this about taking water out or building something or both?" asked Justice David H. Souter, on Oct. 7, the day Justices heard arguments from Maryland and Virginia. "Can a person living next to the river take water out when he is thirsty?… So Virginia has a lot of people who are thirsty."

The Supreme Court sided with Virginia by a 7-2 count; Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy wrote the dissenting opinions.

Expanding Beltway

The process began for expanding the Beltway from the American Legion Bridge to the I-270 spur.

In order for the project to go forward, several Master Plans, including Potomac’s, must be amended to allow the addition of two HOV, or carpool, lanes. The lanes would be placed along the median on each side of the Beltway. It is too early for planners to decide how they will go about the expansion, either by widening the road, narrowing the lanes, or some other method.

The amendments to the Master Plans were approved by the Park and Planning Commission and now must come before the County Council.

Construction of soundwalls would be coupled with widening the road to shield those living along it from road noise. Residents have been asking for these barriers for years, but two residents who were leading the group have recently moved. If the road is widened, soundwalls must be built, according to state law.

Any actual widening or changes to the road will be several years off.

Harbor School

Should a private school be allowed in a residential neighborhood? What if that neighborhood already has two non-residential projects? How many special exception projects on one street are too many?

According to the Board of Appeals and a Montgomery County Circuit Judge, the Harbor School, now on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, should be allowed to open a new facility on the former German-School site on Newbridge Road.

A coalition of residents fought the proposal, citing what they say would be unsafe conditions due to increased traffic. They also point to an assisted living facility across from the building, and a U.S. government facility (the Bolger Center) just up the road, and say that there is too great a concentration of special exceptions in the area already.

The Board of Appeals disagreed, allowing the school to go forward. The residents appealed, and a judge sided with the Board of Appeals. The court went a step further and decided to allow a higher enrollment than the Board had done.

The residents appealed again, this time to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The case will likely be heard sometime in the spring.

Legacy Open Space

The county began a process to preserve two large parcels of open space in the Potomac area under the Legacy Open Space program.

Callithea farm, a 93-acre horse boarding facility on River Road, was purchased by the county for $5 million over five years. The farm will continue to operate as a horse farm, and may in the future, be home to a Civil War interpretative center due to its proximity to some Civil War relics at the nearby Blockhouse Point.

The Serpentine Barrens, approximately 259 acres located on Piney Meetinghouse Road, will also be purchased for about $9 million over five years.

The area is a globally rare area which contains serpentine rock. Bedrock in this area is very shallow, in some places, less then 18 inches below the surface. This creates an area which is unusually susceptible to both flooding and drought and has very acidic soil. It is home to over 20 rare, threatened and endangered plant species. The area will be preserved as a conservation park, though the potential for passive recreation, such as hiking trails, has not yet been determined.

Dunham’s Jog

After years of work by Del. Jean Cryor (R-15) and then State Sen. Jean Roesser (R-15), the area known as Dunham’s Jog is being renovated.

Dunham’s, which get its name from a business which predated Cherner Automotive, is on southbound Falls Road where it intersects River Road.

Drivers in what would normally be a through lane are suddenly in a left-turn lane and those unfamiliar with the intersection can be forced into a quick lane change.

The State Highway Administration began renovating the area. The road will be widened slightly and the sidewalk in front of Mitch & Bill’s Exxon shifted to accommodate the widening. The small median island will also be removed to make room for a longer turning lane.

The project, which began in October, was set to be completed in December, but frequent bad weather forced the delay of construction.

Temperatures will be too low to lay pavement for the next several months, and the project is now expected to be completed in the late spring or early summer.

The Surrey’s Birthday

Potomac landmark, The Surrey, celebrated 50 years of service to the equestrian community, and the rest of Potomac as well. The Surrey was opened by Lyn Carroll on Bastille Day, 1953, in what is now the Chevy Chase Bank building. The business moved in 1959 to its current location in the Potomac Village Shopping Center.

The shop, known for its smell of saddle leather and potpourri, carries a wide variety of horse accessories, clothing and housewares. It has become a fixture among Potomac’s equestrian community.

Lyn Carroll died on Dec. 14, 2003. She was involved in the operation of the store, and was working at her desk in the store the day before she died.

Deer Hotspot

Potomac was declared a deer “hotspot” by the county’s Deer Management Work Group, with 140 deer per square mile in some parts of town. Responding to citizen complaints, the county permitted homeowners to build 8-foot fencing, up from the previous limit of 6.5 feet.

The county also continued to oversee “lethal” deer management — an annual managed hunt — at Blockhouse Point in Potomac. Approximately 80 deer were killed in a November hunt at Blockhouse Point, one year after the first-ever managed hunt there bagged 88 deer.

No Smoking

The County Council, by an 8-1 margin (Praisner) passed a ban on smoking in county restaurants. A previous Council had enacted a similar ban, but it was overturned by the courts.

The restaurant industry is fighting this ban in the courts, as well. A Circuit Court judge rejected a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent implementation the day before the ban was to go into effect.

The ban, which went into effect on Oct. 9, was put in place to protect restaurant employees, the only workers in the county who had to endure a smoke-filled workplace.

Some state lawmakers are considering introducing a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants during the next legislative session.

Grading, Maybe Later

The Board of Education went through a long process of debate and public hearings in order to develop a new grading and reporting policy for Montgomery County Schools. But the process failed to prevent a mutiny of parents and teachers once the policy was set to be implemented.

The policy would attempt to remove subjectivity from grading and would only allow students who scored well on tests and quizzes to receive a good grade — no more ‘A’ for effort.

The plan was initially set to remove attendance from having a direct bearing on a student’s grade, but the attendance component was left in the policy. A separate attendance policy is to be developed.

The policy was set to be implemented at the beginning of the 2003-04 school year.

When students came to school in September, they were told that their homework would no longer count as part of their grade. This, and other misunderstandings, touched off a wave of confusion and anger among parents. In the first few weeks, the Board of Education voted to delay implementation of the policy until the 2004-05 school year and to use the interim as a time for educating parents, students and teachers about the nuances of the new system.

All Day K

The school system announced its plan for the rollout of the state-mandated all-day kindergarten. Bells Mill Elementary will be the first school in Potomac to get the program when it begins next year.

The rollout plan was developed according to a panel which ranked schools across the county in terms of need and several other factors.

Parents at Potomac’s various schools are generally happy with the schedule which they say is fair.

All schools in the county will have all-day kindergarten by the 2007-08 school year.