CHEVERLY – Cheverly Mayor Mike Callahan showed up at the clerk of the county council’s office with a box stuffed with nearly 500 letters on Nov. 21.
They were letters detailing residents’ opposition to a proposed amendment to the Cheverly Sector Plan that would allow housing to be built in a beloved local green space.
“I had no doubt we would have hundreds of letters,” Callahan said. “I am shocked that we have 500 letters.”
In total, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) received 214 letters and 347 postcards regarding the amendment, which a representative from the agency said was an “unusual” amount. The planning board will send its recommendation regarding the amendment to the district council on Dec. 7.
More than 250 Cheverly residents attended a district council public hearing about the amendment in early November. State and town officials, as well as residents, testified that, while they encourage transit-oriented development in Cheverly, they do not believe the green space is an appropriate location for it.
The small park, located off Route 50 in Cheverly, has been the site of much community involvement in recent years. More than 100 volunteers have worked together on projects such as removing invasive species and building a walking trail through the woods.
“Immediately following the meeting when people found out they had until Nov. 21 (to submit written testimony), the community pulled itself together and said, ‘how can we make that happen?’” Callahan said.
A handful of community members, along with Cheverly Councilwoman Laila Riazi, began a letter-writing campaign to submit as much written testimony before the deadline as possible.
“The idea was to, one, show that these voices weren’t going to go away, and that there was this desire to continue to be heard,” Riazi said.
Riazi created a Google Drive with information about the amendment that people could reference as they worked on their letters. Long-time Cheverly resident Joani Horchler created a Facebook group where residents could learn more about the issue.
The community members involved with the letter-writing campaign distributed fliers with pointers and suggestions for drafting an effective written testimony and handed out pre-addressed postcards.
“Many people in Cheverly are feeling frustrated that they can’t make much of a difference on the national level these days, but many people saw this as an opportunity to make a difference on the local level. They felt good about doing something concrete that could make a difference on the local level,” Horchler said. “Both adults and kids who wrote post cards and letters, many of them said that it was the first time they had become politically engaged in their lives.”
Horchler and several other residents waited in Cheverly’s community center every night to hand out information and collect letters the week before the deadline. They also helped offer assistance to people with their letters if they needed it.
“This is really a whole community focusing on their future and the proposal that was really highjacked, and we were deeply disappointed that the process allowed this,” Dan Smith, another resident who got involved, said. “But I have to say that the positive out of this has been the response. It has pulled the community together, and I think a lot of folks across generations and across interests found a common cause and really stepped up and interacted in ways they haven’t in a long time.”
Horchler, Smith and the others set aside a space at Cheverly’s annual Thanksgiving market where people could write letters.
“There was a big response and we didn’t realize how deeply some people had been connecting with some of the green space,” Smith said.
Thomas Ruyle is one of the many Cheverly residents who sent in a letter.
“I talked about the green space itself and the engineering difficulties that would crop up if you tried to build anything in this area,” he said.
The park is on a FEMA-designated flood plain.
Smith said people outside Cheverly go involved, too.
“This (is) absolutely not a Cheverly issue, this is a Prince George’s area issue, keeping green space that has stormwater functions for the Anacostia. This is a part of protecting D.C. from flooding,” he said. “People are interested in redevelopment, and some people are interested in the fair and open process and not having that abused.”
The amendment was requested by a development company days after the Cheverly Sector Plan was approved in June, prompting concerns from local leaders and residents about why the issue was not addressed in the multi-year process of creating the sector plan.
Callahan said not everyone in the town strongly opposes the amendment.
“I believe you could find 3 percent, 5 percent (of the town) that would be supportive of this because they support transit-oriented development, and they believe we ought to have that in our community,” he said. “And to them, what I have said, (is) we have been clear we want transit-oriented development. We want the density. We just have to be careful where we put it. And I think that the people I’ve spoken with have said, ‘I might be for this, but I’m more than willing to listen to the will of the town.’”