By Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun
6:00 AM EDT, October 21, 2013
The Annapolis city council is rushing to finish business on a number of weighty issues before city elections Nov. 5, including adoption of the controversial new master plan for downtown's City Dock.
By Mayor Josh Cohen's count, the city council has had more than 16 hours of meetings devoted to review and revision of the plan during multiple sessions in October. A reworked plan will be the focus of a public hearing Monday night, with a potential vote scheduled for Oct. 28.
"I think the changes we've made are responsible, and they're responsive to the public input we've heard," Cohen said.
The city council is running out of time to act on City Dock and other issues — no meetings are scheduled for the council after the election until the new council is seated in December, and all pending legislation will die at the end of the term.
City Dock plan has been a source of controversy for months, with critics saying the master plan supported by Cohen and others would ruin the charm of downtown by permitting taller buildings, removing a key traffic circle and allowing other changes.
Supporters say it will enhance green and pedestrian spaces and spur needed redevelopment.
Cohen said changes to the plan include not allowing taller buildings on Dock Street, keeping the traffic circle and not allowing significant changes to existing parking until there's a better parking plan in place. The city council also agreed to language that calls for studies of the downtown area's "cultural landscape" and maritime zones before making changes in those areas.
With major projects affecting the City Dock area coming up — including a need to finish modernizing the waterfront's bulkhead and replacing the aging Hillman Garage on Main Street — Cohen said it's important to have a vision for City Dock in place.
In July, an eight-hour hearing on the City Dock plan drew scores of critics, but Cohen thinks the revised plan can win support before the clock runs out.
City Dock may be the most polarizing piece of business facing the council before it adjourns, but it's not the only issue.
In the coming weeks, the council may also decide the fate of a bill that drew considerable attention at last Monday's meeting that would add school capacity and overcrowding as a factor to be considered when the city planners approve new developments.
Developers are concerned the bill would lead to a de facto moratorium on building in parts of the city, though the bill's sponsors — Aldermen Jared Littmann, Ross Arnett and Ian Pfeiffer — said they intend school enrollment figures to be taken under advisement, not as a hard-and-fast rule.
Parents at Hillsmere Elementary School are watching that issue with interest — they say they're concerned about two nearby development plans that could bring more students to that school: the Reserve at Quiet Waters, which could include some 150 townhouses, and the mixed-use Crystal Spring development, which would have mostly senior housing, but also 126 townhouses.
Official 2013-2014 enrollment numbers are not yet available, but Hillsmere has about 550 students in a building with capacity for 476 students, said Anne Arundel County public schools spokesman Bob Mosier.
Hillsmere parent Beth Oldfield said at last Monday's council meeting that the school is already so stretched that students take violin lessons on the school's stage while a gym class takes place on the other side of a curtain.
"Our children at Hillsmere Elementary School are not protected by the law and are at the mercy of the city," she said.
Also before the election, the city council also may to try to ratify new contracts with four employee unions, which are in the final stages of negotiation, Cohen said.
But the clock may run out on some issues: Cohen said the city council may not have time to resolve other legislation that has been lingering, including a revision of forest conservation rules and the creation of a policy for approving special events in downtown Annapolis.
The final city council meetings before the November election are scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 21 and Oct. 28 in City Hall, 160 Duke of Gloucester St.
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