Bethesda Residents Weigh Merits of Incorporating as a City
Residents voice need for greater control over coming decades of community growth
Fueled by frustration with Montgomery County government, Bethesda residents are mulling a push for city incorporation so they can take greater control of their community’s growth.
On Thursday night, about 100 people in the auditorium of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School took a look at the long and arduous process for forming new municipalities.
“The process of incorporation is pretty grueling,” said Thomas Reynolds, education services director for the Maryland Municipal League. “It’s not intended to be easy.”
The meeting called by the East Bethesda Citizens Association and Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents reflected a sense that elected leaders don’t fully grasp community concerns, particularly about the Bethesda Downtown Plan under consideration by the County Council. Members of the groups believe the proposed growth plan would exacerbate school overcrowding and traffic congestion and wouldn’t create enough green space or prevent tall buildings from going up next to single-family homes.
County Council members have listened to these worries, but the interactions have left residents discontent.
“The thing is, they don’t live here,” CBAR founder Mary Flynn said to the audience. “They hear us, but it is not clear they understand us.”
While she and fellow activists aren’t sold on pursuing incorporation, they thought it was an option worth exploring. However, Reynolds outlined the numerous hurdles that residents would face.
Counties, reluctant to lose tax revenue, tend to resist incorporation efforts, and they have veto power over the process, he explained. The state’s youngest municipality, North Chevy Chase, is more than 20 years old, and all incorporation attempts since then have failed.
If Bethesda residents do want to venture down the path, they’d need a petition signed by at least 25 percent of property owners and 20 percent of voters inside the proposed municipal boundaries or at least 25 percent of those voters. A valid petition would trigger a county review, after which council members would either reject the proposed city charter or set a date for a referendum on incorporation. The issue would then go before Bethesda voters for a final decision.
And even if Bethesda did succeed in becoming a city, the underlying growth concerns wouldn’t necessarily vanish, Reynolds said. Securing zoning authority for the city would require a separate act by the Maryland General Assembly, he added.
Former Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman and Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman said becoming a municipality does bump up tax rates, but can also result in higher service levels and greater government accountability.
“You can harass your mayor and your council members at the gas station,” Fosselman said.
EBCA vice president Katya Marin said she was pleased with turnout at Thursday’s gathering, and residents’ coalitions will hold more meetings to continue the conversation.
“In the near term, we really need to mobilize around the sector plan, making sure that Bethesda is protected,” Marin said.
She said her group's goal isn't to stop development but to ensure that the area grows responsibly and that residents are included in the process.