Friday, June 09, 2017
Berliner and Westbard developer made a great team in sector plan push
Berliner was in a "life coach" role for the developer, advising the firm how to deal with you, the pesky NIMBYs, er, taxpaying constituents.
One email shows that Berliner again met privately with Equity One's Michael Berfield and the firm's attorney, Barbara Sears, a week before the firm unveiled its initial proposal to the public at Walt Whitman High School on March 18, 2014. In a follow-up email, Berfield makes an intriguing reference to the possibility that, "As we discussed," Equity One would "provide you with some additional information that may be useful during the Council's budget discussions in April."
Considering a private development project - especially one like Westbard involving no major parks, no new schools or even additions to existing schools, no new County facilities, and no publicly-funded transportation improvements - has virtually no relevance to the County budget...what was this "information," and how would it be "useful" to Berliner?
"I look forward to continuing our work with your office," Berfield concludes.
The next set of emails come from the late phase of the sector plan discussions, when Berliner was fashioning what he would call the "Berliner Alternative" behind the scenes with Equity One. At the meeting he unveiled his "alternative" at before the Springfield Civic Association, Berliner stressed that "developers would not guide his final decisions in the process. 'What guides me is whether or not what is proposed...enhances our community,' not development interests, he said."
Behind the scenes, it turns out, developers were indeed guiding the process.
On February 16, 2016, a "draft letter" from Berfield is sent to Berliner for his review, and to County Council staff member Marlene Michaelson, whose staff report ultimately became the ground rules for the final debate on the sector plan. Berliner's Chief of Staff, Cindy Gibson, advises Sears later that day to make changes to the letter. It was apparently input for a memo Berliner would release to formalize his "Berliner alternative."
Still later on the 16th, Gibson tells Sears, "We needed to pull the trigger today," in apparent reference to the Berliner memo. That involved language on two points being "modified" - "I hope in an acceptable manner," Gibson writes deferentially to Sears.
Sears writes back forty minutes later, advising Berliner's office that there are "things in the memo which will cause Equity One some problems." The "problems," Sears writes, are the requirement of the paltry 1/2-acre postage stamp civic green, realignment of Westbard Avenue to connect it directly to River Road, and the Willett Branch.
Those three issues, you may recall, were the very ones later ignored in Equity One's sketch plan, that would be submitted in late summer 2016 to the Planning Department.
Gibson replies that, "I had not identified those as controversial (sic) so I apologize...Michael [Berfield] can certainly oppose any language in this memo he feels is not in his best interest."
Ultimately, the Berliner Alternative memo would end up being very much in the developer's interest - so much so, that Equity One used Berliner's memo in its own PR campaign. But hardly in the best interest of Berliner's political career. The Berliner Alternative dropped like a rock when released, blasted by the vast majority of his Westbard constituents.
Only the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights endorsed the plan - without polling its member organizations first. Interestingly, two days ago, as many as five members of the CCCFH formally endorsed Berliner's quixotic bid for County Executive.