Before Montgomery County sells or leases public land, its legislative body wants a say.
Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park is pushing for the passage of an economic development bill that would require a public hearing and County Council approval for land leases or sales.
“The intent was to provide safeguards to the public to ensure the sale or lease of county assets are in the public interest,” Leventhal said.
As real estate markets remain depressed and the fate of a former proposed school site in Potomac mires the county in a legal battle with residents, the bill has received both support and opposition.
Those in favor see it as much-needed check on County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who has sold or leased land under terms that raised eyebrows.
"It is unfortunate when a governmental entity oversteps their bounds, but I am grateful to the County Council for recognizing these abuses by our current county executive and for having the fortitude to submit this legislation," Ted Duncan, vice president of the Civic Association of River Falls, testified in March.
Duncan’s association opposes the pending lease of land that had been proposed for use for a new school to Montgomery Soccer Inc. to turn it into soccer fields. The 20 acres on Brickyard Road has been an organic farm for 30 years, but the Potomac master plan — a document that guides regional development — calls for more soccer or recreational fields.
In addition to the Brickyard tract, Leventhal cited Leggett’s decision to sell the former police headquarters on Research Boulevard for $3.2 million, about $6 million less than the council anticipated, as questionable.
Those opposed to Leventhal’s measure see it as an invasion of executive powers defined in the county charter and a barrier to successful development negotiations.
The county charter vests executive power in the county executive while county code regulates the selling and leasing of land stating: “The County Executive may ... dispose of County-owned real property not currently programmed, except those properties ...”
The bill violates the charter by unilaterally allowing the council to veto the sale or lease of land, according to County Attorney Mark Hansen and Clifford Royalty, chief of the division of Zoning, Land Use and Economic Development.
“Council staff seems to be unaware that the concept of check and balance runs in at least two directions — not just checking the executive power,” Hansen later wrote to Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac. “The authority the charter vests in the executive to implement the laws of the county acts as a balance against the unchecked concentration of power in the legislative branch.”
Other critics, including Georgette Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, argued the bill would weaken negotations by increasing the number of county negotiators from one to 10.
Six members of the council have sponsored Leventhal’s bill.
At issue in the bill is a provision that would give the council approval of “all material terms” of land sales and leases for properties valued at more than $100,000, including “the price or rent to be paid and any associated economic incentives.”
A proposed amendment to the bill would limit council oversight to approving or disapproving when a property is no longer needed, prohibiting the executive from selling or leasing any county property at less than full-market value without a council waiver, and allowing the council 30 days to comment on the proposed terms of of any sale or lease before a deal is negotiated.
Additional amendments to the bill would exempt sales or leases for projects that provide affordable housing above the minimum requirement, and sales and leases of park-managed properties.
On Thursday, the Governmental Operations and Fiscal Policy committee began working to tweak the two-page bill, and will make recommendations on the proposed amendments.
With all but Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg present, the three-member committee agreed to recommend the council exempt park-managed property from the bill. It will continue its discussion this month.