Chevy Chase Council caught in the middle

Tension was noticeably thick as over a dozen residents of the Town of Chevy Chase spoke to the Town Council about their displeasure with the tactics and trustworthiness of Purple Line Transit Partners during a meeting at the Jane E. Lawton Community Center last Monday night.

“I would like the Council to formally put on record a request to fire the Purple Line Transit Partners, the private contractor behind the ridiculously short notice people had that the trail was going to be closed four to five years” said Deborah Vollmer during the public comments portion of the agenda. “They are thuggish; they’re incompetent.  And the way they have entered into this project we can only ask what more outrages are we going to face? What more corners are they going to cut?”

On Aug. 29, the Maryland Transit Administration announced on its Purple Line website that it would close the approximately 3.5-mile trail to begin construction on the rail system. The light-rail line will travel between Silver Spring and Bethesda on the trail right-of-way.

Many at the meeting urged the Council to take a stronger positon against the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the agency overseeing the project, than they have in the past.

“It feels like the state has washed its hands and said ‘the Purple Line folks are in charge now’,” said Eric Niller to the council. “Unless things turn around, I really urge the council to consider other options, stronger options, tougher options.”

In the past, the town spent about $500,000 fighting the light-rail project, but in the fall of 2015, the town decided to redirect its efforts from direct opposition to mitigating the effects of the project’s construction on the town.

Now, the current Council, led by Mayor Mary Flynn, is facing the daunting task of reconciling the town’s strategy of mitigation with the shifting landscape of the project’s construction.

“When I became mayor, all the folks that had made the decisions in the past were no longer on the Council; we were all new council members,” Flynn said in an interview at the town offices earlier this month. “So, I asked MCDOT to come present, show us your proposal so we can all get up to speed.”

The meeting was to be a roundtable discussion with residents from sections of Chevy Chase outside of the town’s boundaries: Section 3, Section 5, and Martin’s Addition.

The other sections need to participate because the redirection of the Georgetown Crescent Trail would possibly have a direct impact on their neighborhoods, said Flynn.   

“So, the day of the (May) meeting, I had compiled a number of questions from everyone and gave it to them (MCDOT),” said Flynn. “They said, ‘We’re not prepared for this. We will reschedule after Memorial Day’.”

The town never heard from MCDOT in June. They followed up in July, but the agency was still not ready to meet, according to Flynn. The meeting was never rescheduled. 

The next time the town had an official contact about the project was when MCDOT announced that the trail was closing after Labor Day.

As a result, the residents of the town are ready for more action.

On Tuesday, the day after the town meeting, there was another hearing in District Court on the trail issue. Judge Richard Leon presided over a new matter brought by the same plaintiffs pursuing the still open 2014 case to shut the Purple Line down completely – Town of Chevy Chase residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real De Azua and the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail. The plaintiffs in this new case are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent trees from being cut down for Purple Line construction until both cases can be adjudicated.

The night before at the Council meeting, Jim Roy of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, asked the town to join the litigation and contribute $50,000 to their legal fund.

“I know how much the town has spent at this point, and it has been a considerable sum of money,” said Roy. “But, I really don’t believe this is throwing good money after bad.”

After outlining several violations that his organization believes that the contractor has broken during the planning process, Roy outlined the environmental devastation that would occur as a result from the removal of trees and pollution of the environment.

“Please consider what will happen if all the trees are cut down and we win in court, that’s still a loss,” cautioned Roy.

Mayor Flynn acknowledged that she has received numerous emails from residents encouraging the town to formally join the litigation.

“The town council has a policy of mitigation, not opposition. Also, prior councils have not provided public funds for private lawsuits,” said Flynn. “We would have to do a public hearing on that matter before the council would unilaterally make that decision.”

“I understand that is the case,” said Roy. “But, this is still mitigation. We need to know the effects of the project on property value, the environment, and safety before the trees are gone and it is too late.”

As of this writing, Judge Leon has not ruled on the injunction.

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