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Issues to Watch in Potomac

A short drive through Potomac Village and the surrounding area can illuminate some of the major issues affecting Potomac.

Near the intersection of Falls and River roads, traffic thickens during commuter hours each weekday. A driver who goes northbound on River Road will soon reach rural area, the county's Agricultural Reserve. Not far from the Village, several homes are for sale, with asking prices that would have been unimaginable eight years ago. At many of the elementary schools dotting the Potomac roads, classroom trailers are a reminder that many schools are operating beyond capacity. This year, many front lawns will bear signs supporting candidates for the many county and state government positions that are currently up for election.

<b>Greenspace and Conservation</b>

“One of the best things about living in Potomac is having so much park land of so many different kinds,” said Delegate Jean Cryor (R-15), who represents Potomac in the Maryland General Assembly.

“Where else can you go to the [C&O] Canal and walk to Georgetown or walk to Cumberland if you want to?” she asked. “Plus we have all this incredible park land, like the Serpentine Barrens and Blockhouse Point. There are geologically unique areas and huge forests and lots of habitat.”

The environment is an integral part of the community, and the Cabin John Regional Park and the C&O Canal National Historical Park are two examples of greenspace within Potomac’s borders. The C&O Canal, which boasts 185 miles of bike trail and four centuries of history, is a favorite destination for athletes, historians and nature lovers. Each year, 18,000 visitors once enjoyed trips down canal and through a large replica canal boat, where school children and residents were treated to history lessons and scenic views as a team of mules pulled their boat down the canal.

In 2003, the National Park Service could not pay for damages sustained by the old Canal Clipper, and the trips ceased altogether. Community volunteers from Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern set about raising $545,000 with the help of about 7,000 donors for a new canal boat. By early July, they were within $50,000 of their goal (see www.buildacanalboat.com). Provided that the remaining funds are raised, a boat building company in New York will deliver a 58-foot, double-decker canal boat to Lock 20 at the Great Falls Tavern in early fall. The vessel will be a replica of the packet boats that sailed the canal in centuries past, but with a modern sound system, toilet and wheelchair lift.

“The community has truly come together to recognize [the C&O Canal] as a part of our past,” said Cryor, who helped secure $200,000 in state funds for the project. “We want our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the experience and have a feeling for what this area was like in the early days of our country. The canal is a national treasure.”

“We live a half-mile from the C&O Canal, and I take walks there with my dogs,” said Carol Van Dam Falk, a National Public Radio newscaster and self-described “soccer mom.” Falk has served as a PTA delegate for two schools in North Potomac and is on the board of directors of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association. She is also an environmental activist dedicated to conserving greenspace in the Potomac area.

“I love that opportunity to be there on my bike in seven minutes and to go north or south as far as I want for hours along the canal. The enchantment of wildlife there is like nothing else, and I hope that it’s maintained for future generations.”

A “rural crescent” of more than 90,000 acres of greenspace and farming is protected in the northwestern third of Montgomery County, making the area a national leader in environmental preservation. This Agricultural Reserve is home to nearly 600 farms, the majority of which are family-operated, that employ more than 10,000 residents. Fresh produce is plentiful at farm stands on the reserve and in farmers markets throughout Montgomery County. The reserve also offers recreational opportunities like horseback riding, hiking, biking and canoeing.

“One of the most rewarding things about living in Potomac is being so close to the Potomac River and enjoying its beauty, and the scenic beauty of the upper Agricultural Reserve, and the rolling farm land up there,” said Falk.

She said that one of the most challenging things about living in Potomac is “having an ever-watchful eye on what developers will be doing next in this area.”

“I hate to say it, but sometimes you have to be watchful of your neighbors and check if they’re getting the proper permits [for building or landscaping],” she said. “All of that impacts on our whole community because of soil erosion. The more people learn about it, they realize they have to be their own policeman on that stuff.”

Daniel Snyder, a Potomac resident and owner of the Washington Redskins, caused controversy in 2004 when he persuaded Park Service officials to let him clear two acres of mature trees that were blocking the view of the C&O Canal and Potomac River from his estate. Snyder’s representatives claimed that he was trying to “rid his property of invasive species,” but the Park Service’s horticulturist said that clearing the trees would make invasion of nonnative species more likely and would also lead to erosion. Critics accused Snyder of sacrificing the natural environment in order to dramatically increase the value of his home.

“All the little tributaries and all the little creeks that go through the area all flow into the Potomac River, which is our drinking water supply,” said Elie Pisarra-Cain, a life-long Potomac resident. She is on the board of directors for the Potomac Theatre Company and is a member of Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern.

“Whatever we can’t protect becomes a real problem to the water system. That’s why Potomac has areas that are so much less developed — all that green helps to keep the water clean.”

<b>Growth and Gridlock</b>

“It’s important for newcomers to realize that the historic tradition and preservation in Potomac did not happen automatically,” said County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1), who lives in Chevy Chase but also represents Potomac. He has lived in Montgomery County for 50 years.

“It reflects a lot of work by a lot of people who respect the environmental uniqueness of the community. Policymakers have to be reminded of that at all levels of government.”

Potomac’s small-town feel takes effort. Hand in hand with its dedication to conservation and community is a fierce opposition to runaway growth. Residents want to preserve the winding country roads and small-town feel.

“We’re not saying to people stay out of the community, but know you’ll have to go slower and appreciate the beauty of it all,” said Pisarra-Cain. “You might get behind a biker on Saturday morning, so take your time and appreciate the beauty of the trees.”

The 2002 Potomac Master Plan, which will guide development through 2022, is devoted to environmental preservation and envisions the area as a “green wedge” protecting the regional water supply. Despite the astronomical real estate values of Potomac, the Master Plan ensures that the area will remain a low-density buffer along the Potomac River for the foreseeable future. The Plan articulates Potomac’s two-lane road policy that prohibits widening to more than one lane in either direction, ensuring that drives through Potomac remain scenic and leisurely.

“There’s been huge growth the last 25 years [in Potomac],” said Pisarra-Cain. “To have a community that is that big and people still feel like it’s a real community I think is very exciting.”

The Potomac Master Plan expressly forbids a “Techway” or “Second Crossing” to bridge Potomac and western Fairfax County in Virginia.

Supporters of the Techway, who mostly hail from Northern Virginia, say that a second bridge would reduce traffic on Interstate-495’s American Legion Bridge and connect the biotech firms in Montgomery County with the high-tech firms in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Opponents say that a four- to six-lane highway would dissect Potomac, require the demolition of numerous existing communities, and disturb environmentally sensitive and historic parkland.

In 2000, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) requested $2 million to conduct a study on the feasibility of a Techway bridge over the Potomac River. Public outcry and preliminary analysis of the disruptions the bridge would cause prompted him to cancel the study seven months later.

In 2003, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich (R) and Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D) announced their support for a new Techway study because they believed the second crossing would benefit “U-shaped commuters” traveling from upper Montgomery County to western Fairfax County (e.g., from Gaithersburg to Reston, Va.). The Virginia Department of Transportation conducted a license plate study on the American Legion Bridge and found that only about 8 percent of Virginia and Maryland commuters would benefit from the Techway, because most commuters are traveling to destinations on or inside I-495 rather than to the suburbs outside it. Prior VDOT analysis of bridge crossings suggested that more than 75 percent of traffic on the Techway would be generated by the development sparked by the new bridge itself, according to the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental conservation.

“The Techway is a real hot-button issue,” said Elie Pisarra-Cain, a life-long Potomac resident. “People have a false idea that it would take traffic off the American Legion Bridge, but studies found it would not alleviate more than 8 percent of traffic. That’s not worth destroying this area. Who wants to live next to a six-lane highway right in the middle of our beautiful farmland?”

On the other side of the debate, the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance is a business/citizens group that advocates for major transportation projects in the region. They say that the growth of jobs outside the Beltway means that “in the future, two out of every three commutes will be suburb to suburb,” making a link between the Montgomery County and Fairfax County suburbs vital.

While language in the Potomac Master Plan makes a Techway unlikely before 2022, some residents are concerned by the construction that is planned on the Inter-County Connector (ICC), a future freeway that will connect I-270 near Gaithersburg to I-95 near Laurel. The ICC would provider a quicker commute between Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, as well as more business for the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Studies conducted on the ICC in 1983 and 1997 both determined that the ICC’s effects on the environment outweighed potential benefits in traffic reduction. In 2003, Ehrlich followed through on his campaign promise of resurrecting the plans for the ICC, and support for the project from President George W. Bush prompted a fast-track environmental review. The ICC was approved by the Federal Highway Administration in May. Completion of the project is expected by 2010.

Construction of the ICC would fill in a substantial piece of an “Outer Beltway” around I-495, which was first proposed in the 1960s. Some activists worry that construction of the ICC could lend more weight to the movement for a Techway across the Potomac since the two highways would align well geographically. Maryland politicians gave up on the Outer Beltway concept in the 1970s because of the negative environmental impact it would have.

“If you look at what they’ve done so far on a larger scale map, you can see how they could connect the dots and do a second river crossing to connect up with 270,” said local resident Carol Van Dam Falk. “If they ever did that, it would be the end of the beauty of the C&O Canal.”

The Bi-County Transitway, also known as the Purple Line, has wider support from Potomac residents. The Purple Line would add a 14-mile transit line to the Washington Metro system to connect Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton. The Transitway is currently in the planning stages.

“I think we do need to develop our transit,” said Pisarra-Cain. “There are areas that need to be served, and I think it’s a wonderful way to get cars off the road. Obviously people are willing to use it — the lots provided for what’s there now are always filled up.”

“I support all efforts to increase mass transit rather than spending the dollars on building more highways,” said Falk. She thinks a more extensive Metro system could take commuter traffic off the backroads of the Potomac area.

With commuters cutting through, “these little roadways become highways, which is not fair to the neighborhoods,” she said. “Our little country winding road turns into a highway every morning and afternoon at rush hour.”

<b>Housing Prices Soar</b>

The ZIP code 20854 — which includes most of Potomac — is the twelfth most affluent in the United States, and it has the highest income with a population of 30,000 or more, according to data from the 2000 Census. Potomac is often cited as the inspiration for the television show “Beverly Hills 90210,” which was created by Darren Star, a graduate of Winston Churchill High School. “Potomac, MD 20854” was an early working title for the show about wealthy teenagers.

Potomac has its share of celebrities, high-level government officials, athletes and journalists. Past and present residents include tennis player Pete Sampras, 11-time NBA All-Star Patrick Ewing, professional soccer player Freddy Adu, Washington Capitals forward Jeff Halpern, former boxers Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard, broadcast journalists Ted Koppel and Wolf Blitzer, former CIA Director George Tenet, and California first lady Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger.

The Potomac real estate market increased at a feverish pace between 1999 and 2005. In April 1998, the median single-family home price was $379,500, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. By April 2006, the median single-family home price had risen to $942,500, a 148 percent increase.

Similar increases were posted across Montgomery County, where the median price of single-family homes increased by about 145 percent over the same period.

In recent months, the market has cooled slightly, but housing values remain in the stratosphere. Even “entry-level” homes in Potomac approach $1 million, according to some agents.

<b>Affordable Housing?</b>

Where does workforce housing for teachers, firefighters and police officers in Potomac fit into this picture?

The county’s “moderately priced dwelling unit” program has resulted in scattered affordable housing in developments in Potomac. The county has eyeballed the vacant school site on Brickyard Road as a possible site for more affordable housing, although so far the school system has not declared that the site is not needed for schools.

There is a strong perception of a lack of affordable housing in Potomac because of the low turnover rate of affordable units and the slower rate of development in Potomac compared to the rest of the county.

However, according to Potomac team leader Callum Murray, about 8 percent of housing in Potomac is affordable, which is on pace with the rest of the county.

“Given that much of Potomac has large-lot zoning ranging from minimum one-acre to five acres, given that sewer is precluded from approximately 50 percent of the subregion, and given the high cost of land, the County Council, the Planning Board and the Housing Opportunities Commission have done an excellent job of providing affordable housing in Potomac,” Murray said.

Murray understands why there is a perceived lack of affordable housing in Potomac, in large part because of the listings of house sale prices in Potomac.

In July, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a proposal to boost the availability of affordable “workforce” housing in the county for middle- and working-class families.

Councilmember Steve Silverman (D-at large), who is also running for county executive, sponsored the measure, which mandates that 10 percent of market rate housing in areas near Metro stations must be affordable to people between 80-120 percent of the county’s median income, which is $89,000 for a family of four. A total of 2,500 affordable units will be added over the next 20 to 30 years as a result of this program.

“I absolutely support the concept [of affordable housing], but I believe in smart growth — fewer and shorter auto trips,” said County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1). “The way you do that when you’re doing affordable housing clustering to the fullest possible extent in walking distance of a Metro stop. In Potomac there are different considerations because there is no Metro stop.”

“As long as land continues to rise in value, the issue of affordable housing will continue to be a daunting challenge,” said Delegate Jean Cryor (R-15). “Already the state helps with mortgages, moderately-priced dwelling units, and special tax structures to make it possible for people to stay in their homes. [The problem] is never going to be completely solved, but it cannot be ignored and it has to be worked on to bring relief.”

“There are no more opportunities [for affordable housing] really in Potomac because it’s pretty much built out,” said Elie Pisarra-Cain, a life-long Potomac resident. “If put in, it should be near transit lines.”

Affordability is a challenge for small businesses in Potomac as well. Two long-time restaurants in Potomac, the Village Deli and Picasso Grille, recently closed, and there is empty retail space in several commercial centers in Potomac. Soaring rental costs for commercial space make it difficult for companies without national backing to survive long-term.

“The deli has closed and more banks are coming in,” said Cryor. “Over the last couple of years, when local merchants decide it’s too expensive to stay in Potomac, they are replaced with statewide or national firms. All are welcome, but you miss the local flavor.”

<sh>Challenges for Local Schools

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“I think the schools are why people love moving here,” said local resident Carol Van Dam Falk. “We have national recognition for top-notch schools. A lot of people around here send their kids to private schools, but when we have some of the best schools in the nation, why not send them to the public schools?”

Students at Montgomery County Public Schools post some of the highest scores in the nation and have access to a broad range of specialized programs. The school system is not without challenges, however.

In fall 2003 County Executive Doug Duncan requested that Montgomery County Public Schools turn over unneeded school property to the county for use as affordable housing sites. Seven Locks Elementary was eventually eyed for this, and Montgomery County Public Schools pushed to close Seven Locks and shift the students to a new, larger facility on Kendale Road. According to an audit that was later conducted by the Inspector General, the school system used faulty data to lead the Board of Education and the County Council toward a plan to close Seven Locks.

Seven Locks parents were furious over the attempt to close their school. The audit confirmed many of their concerns over the Seven Locks/Kendale Road debacle, including the need for more complete cost data and consideration of alternative building plans. The Save Seven Locks Coalition considered the situation “a poster child for accountability in the school system.” Many also questioned the large size of the elementary school planned for Kendale, which would house about 700 students.

“I think the school on Kendale was planned too big,” said Elie Pisarra-Cain, a life-long Potomac resident. “When you have more than 600 students, I think kids drop through the cracks.”

After the Inspector General’s findings were published in February, County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) quickly introduced a measure to shift construction funds from Kendale back to Seven Locks.

“Two things came out of the Seven Locks story,” said Delegate Jean Cryor (R-15). “The community learned of its own power to step forward and say, ‘We want the Seven Locks school to stay on Seven Locks Road.’ The struggle between the School Board, the Council and the community has been a difficult one, but we seem to have reached a solid compromise now.”

Although the Save Seven Locks Coalition scored a victory, children in Potomac and all of Montgomery County continue to face the day-to-day difficulties of learning in an overcrowded school system. 719 trailers across the division house about 12 percent of the student body, and the facilities are not always up to par. Earlier this year at Bells Mill Elementary, two of the school’s eight trailers were closed because of mold that made 41 children sick.

“Overcrowding has been an issue ever since we lived here, when my oldest [a rising junior at Thomas Wootton High School] was a kindergartener,” said Falk.

<b>Election-Year Politics</b>

Large numbers of challengers have thrown their hats into the ring for local and state office in the upcoming election, which could become a referendum on growth.

The "End Gridlock Slate," a transportation-focused platform centering on passage of the Inter-County Connector and Montrose Parkway, among other initiatives, helped County Executive Douglas Duncan and five candidates for County Council win four years ago.

It could draw a backlash in this election as too "pro-growth," say some analysts.

"There's a reaction to the direction of the End Gridlock, pro-growth stance," said Gail Ewing, an adjunct professor in political science at Montgomery College. Ewing, who lives in Potomac, served on the County Council as a Democrat from 1990 to 1998. "People want to slow things down and be more measured" in their stance on growth.

Trevor Parry-Giles, who lives in Silver Spring, is an associate professor of political communication at the University of Maryland who has been on the Maryland Politics Hour on WAMU, a public radio station based in D.C. Parry-Giles also predicts that growth will be a key issue in the upcoming elections, but he said that many issues will trickle down to the local races from state and national political debates.

"The issues facing [gubernatorial candidates] [Robert] Ehrlich and [Martin] O'Malley will filter their way down," he said. "I think the electricity rates issue is an ongoing one, and it fuels the progressive versus establishment dynamic. You also see some of the bigger national issues intruding in things like healthcare."

Every state and local office will be on the ballot for the Sept. 12 primary and Nov. 7 general election. Thirty candidates are vying for nine seats on the County Council, and five are competing for the county executive position. Candidates from Potomac in the County Council election include Democratic at-large challenger Tufail Ahmad and Democratic district 1 challenger Roger Berliner.

At the State Senate level, incumbent Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) is being challenged by Potomac Republican Bill Askinazi.

In District 15 of the Maryland House of Delegates, three of the six candidates competing for four positions are from Potomac. They include long-time incumbent Jean Cryor (R-15), incumbent Brian Feldman (D-15) and Republican challenger Brian Mezger.

There are far more Democrats than Republicans running, meaning that the Democratic primary will in many cases reveal the election winner.