Friday, February 20, 2009

cary lamari: despite long career of activism, still "not a politician"

Part ONE in our series of interviews with candidates in the County Council special election. For more information on Cary Lamari, check out his campaign website and campaign page on Facebook.

Cary Lamari and I are respectively the second-youngest and youngest people sitting in Nancy's Kitchen, a cozy restaurant in Leisure World Plaza. Despite my extreme lateness to our interview (he'd had enough time to finish breakfast, shake a few hands and drive most of the way home before I called him), he's still willing to introduce me to a few gentlemen seated at the booth across from me.

"This is Ben Kramer's uncle," Lamari says. "He used to cut my hair." That's State Delegate Ben Kramer who, of course, is running against Lamari for the open District 4 County Council seat, and is quite popular around Leisure World. "How old is he?" asks one of the other gentlemen at the table. "I don't know," I reply with a shrug. "I'm eighty-three," replies Ben Kramer's uncle. "It's the alcohol," jokes the other gentleman. "It preserves him."

But when we sit down, Lamari is all business, jumping right into his family story. The son of Italian immigrants, he was born in the District and grew up in Wheaton. "My father was an electrical engineer, and he was tickled he could get a job as a laborer because he would feed his family," he says. "Our neighbors looked at us funny, but you grow with a community and you become a part of the community."

"It was a different Wheaton then," Lamari adds. "We've become a lot more diverse and a lot more tolerant of our differences."

The biggest issues facing District 4 right now are "taxes, the economy and congestion," says Lamari, followed by the school system. "You have to look at Montgomery County in the big picture . . . I believe that the quality of life has diminished when you talk about infrastructure and schools."

Quality of life first became an issue to Lamari when he built a home off of Norbeck Road in 1984. The area "was a no-man's land," he says. "There was a junkyard behind the church, there was a barbed wire fence around Leisure World, there was a park our kids couldn't get to. I was outraged."

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Traffic on Norbeck Road (Route 28) at Georgia Avenue.

"I started noticing growth in Montgomery County," he says, "and I wondered what are they dynamics in making a good project." Deciding to jump into local politics, Lamari "studied" under former Councilmember Ida Mae Garrett, visiting her with current Councilmember Phil Andrews. "She was our mentor," he says. "She taught us how to be a good Democrat and how to be a good activist, how to accomplish your goals . . . it wasn't politics back then. It was the local issues."

When he began attending meetings for the Aspen Hill Master Plan, which was revised in the 1990's, he'd see representatives for local developers and residents from Leisure World, but no one representing his own community. "No wonder we aren't getting any positive development," he recalls saying. Lamari "fought" for road widenings, pedestrian access, and the expansion of local parks.

On the Mid County Citizens Advisory Board, Lamari criticized the Pay-and-Go program, which allowed developers to pay a surcharge for the road and infrastructure improvements their projects require, calling it a "token fee" that didn't cover the expenses incurred. "I decided to fight City Hall . . . you didn't do that under the Doug Duncan administration," says Lamari. He resigned from the board, but he didn't stop talking. Instead, Lamari jumped over to the Montgomery County Civic Federation, where he became their president. In 2003, he testified at the Annual Growth Policy hearings. "I vociferously stood up and said 'this isn't a gift to developers, it's a pay-off,'" says Lamari.

Six years later, he laments, nothing has changed. "We still don't have an Annual Growth Policy that's quantifiable, that has a vision, that has any direction for where we want to target our growth. I say if we're going to grow, let's have a plan," says Lamari. "Let's do it the right way and let's do what we can afford . . . You want to target that growth where you'll have the best results with that investment. That was where we failed in Clarksburg," he adds, referring to the rapidly-growing Upcounty new town.

But Lamari argues that some investments are better than others. He opposes the InterCounty Connector, not because it would pass a thousand feet from his home, but "because it doesn't make sense," he says. "I believe what Marilyn Praisner said: we have the cleanest streams [in East County] but the least transportation investment. And, in my view, the three-billion-dollar expense of the ICC doesn't help. You have to weigh two things. The cost of the environment and the cost of other transportation options - widening Norbeck, grade-separated interchanges, widening Muncaster Mill."

He blames the SHA for their unwillingness to study widening Norbeck Road, which parallels the ICC and carries much of the traffic projected to use it. When completed, the first phase of the highway will terminate on Norbeck just east of Georgia Avenue. "It is kind of ridiculous to terminate the ICC onto a two-lane road with no shoulders for eighteen months," he says, noting that the traffic will be a safety issue for Leisure World, the nearby retirement community with 8,500 permanent residents. "You limit access to the safety vehicles serving these people."

When I ask Lamari if there's an example of good development in Montgomery County, he lists a few places, mostly along the 270 corridor. "I love the Kentlands because it's a walkable community," he says, referring to the renowned New Urban development in Gaithersburg. "But if you're going to work, people need options, such as [the Corridor Cities Transitway] . . . don't make people fight in traffic on 270."

"I love the TOD idea," says Lamari. "but I believe in Montgomery County we can have an urban lifestyle for those who enjoy that, we can have a suburban lifestyle for those who enjoy that, and we must preserve our rural lifestyle . . . We're not a sleepy bedroom community anymore."

Lamari calls the Kentlands in Gaithersburg an example of good development in Montgomery County.

"You don't want to make people's lives difficult," he continues. "They want to be home with their families. You want to give them choices. You want to make friendly communities, neighborhood shopping centers - you need to have a balance with jobs. We put all our economic opportunities on the west side of the County and into Virginia. You gotta look at the big picture."

After twenty-five years of civic activism, Lamari still considers himself an outsider, taking care to remind me that he's "not a politician." His experience in the public eye limited to seats on advisory boards and community groups. "It's amazing how an individual who wants to participate in government can make his voice heard," he notes, "and it's amazing how people will stifle his voice."

"I think the civic community is very valuable," says Lamari. "People charge that they're 'NIMBYs.' I think it's okay to be a NIMBY. Residents that feel a passion for certain issues may get involved, but when they see how the system works, they want to contribute. I got involved to get my son to a park . . . it's those people who start out as NIMBYs who become positive contributors."

"It's incumbent on an elected official to have an open ear to all sides, all interests, all stakeholders. Then he's gotta do what's right."

For more information, check out Cary Lamari's campaign website and campaign page on Facebook.

1 comment:

Thomas Hardman said...

What's the difference between an activist and a politician?

Usually, that the activist gets about 90 percent of what their constituents want but they don't get paid for what they do; a politician gets paid for what they do, which is mostly to make sure that nobody comes out of a situation totally happu.

At least that's how it looks to me, sometimes.

Mr Lamari sounds like s decent person although I'm not sure I agree with all of his stated positions. But he's 100-percent correct when he says that East County might have the cleanest streams and least infrastructure development.

In particular, the part of District 4 that has been getting the lion's share of attention (from development to infrastructure) has been the easternmost section, not surprisingly the part closest to Calverton. But west of US-29, "not so much". At least "the County" has some idea that we're here, and that their inattention and practical ignorance of "west District 4" has been creating problems.

Look at the Bel-Pre Road/Bonifant Road corridor and the MD-28 ("Norbeck Road") corridor. The State certainly hasn't paid a lot of attention to MD-28; aside from a few intersection improvements, that road is the same as it's been since the days of horse-and-buggy when it was one of the main farm-to-market roads from Sandy Spring and Ashton to Norbeck and Rockville. Mr Lamari is correct to question the wisdom of dumping freeway traffic onto Norbeck Road at what is already something of a chokepoint. Yet that might inspire the State to start thinking about a significant upgrade of MD-28 between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road, and in fact it's very long overdue to have Layhill Road widened and flattened at least from the new ICC crossing out to the intersection with Norwood Road. MD-28 and the Spencerville-Burtonsville Road (MD-198) could use some improvements as well; it carries saturation traffic for most of the day, and it needs to be a divided highway.

I'll have to be looking deeper into Mr Lamari's history of activism since he's working hard just up the road from my own area of interest and there may be significant overlap. Regardless of who wins this election, there's a screaming need to get the County to make some policy changes around the general "west District 4" area, which of course includes Aspen Hill, the Layhill communities, and Norbeck. Whether the County government has the money to make big improvements, that's one argument; it's quite another argument to suggest that the County can make policy changes that don't cost much but have significant and long-lasting effects here in our communities.