County Council member Hans Riemer wants to explore changing state law or the Montgomery County charter so officials can create a special tax for creating Bethesda parks.
A new revenue stream could generate enough money for projects to transform county-owned parking lots into green spaces, an idea that is gaining traction among some officials and community members. In a Monday memo, Riemer argued a complete parks financing strategy is a critical addition to the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan that the council is now reviewing.
“I want to ensure there is adequate funding to make the vision of the plan a reality,” he wrote.
The current plan draft already includes a mechanism for raising cash by letting developers pay to add density to their projects. The current version of the plan, expected to guide development in downtown Bethesda for the next 20 years or so, would create a proposed “density pool” of about four million square feet that developers could tap at a cost of $10 per square foot.
At that rate, the pool could create up to $40 million for parkland, according to a financial analysis attached to Riemer’s memo. Even a modest cost estimate for creating new Bethesda parks would total $117 million, resulting in a $77 million funding shortfall, the county staff analysis stated.
Riemer said he’s not sold on any specific approach to tackling this problem, but he wants to spark conversation about it. He said he thinks Bethesda residents are eager for more green space and open to considering new revenue-raising proposals.
“If the status quo is fine, and you just want small changes, then you don’t need to do this. But if you want to have a really big impact and you want transformational change for Bethesda, a big impact on what the parks and recreation space is, you’ve got to have funding to do it,” he said.
One solution could be levying a special property tax inside Bethesda, a measure that would yield a steady revenue source for officials to borrow against.
The county analysis enumerated a variety of other options, like a park recordation tax on home sales or a park impact tax on development, but listed drawbacks for each of those approaches. Some of these ideas would affect only Bethesda residents, while others might apply across the county.
Establishing a special tax for parks would mean wrangling with the county’s charter limit, which requires that any attempt to grow tax revenues faster than the rate of inflation garner support from all nine council members.
To get around this barrier, officials could lobby the Maryland General Assembly to change state law or push for a referendum to alter the county charter.
Riemer has asked fellow council members to direct staff to research these processes, provide a list of park projects and possible costs and form a financial model for a special taxing district. Based on this information, he also wants to consider tweaking the cost of buying square footage from the density pool, he wrote in the memo.
A council committee is scheduled to discuss the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan on Thursday