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March 8, 2009

Dim Bulbs

Dear Bright Lights:

Discussion of Councilmembers Mary Cheh’s and Michael Brown’s dark skies legislation, the “Smart Lighting Act of 2009,”, continues in this issue of themail. I’m sorry, but I still haven’t been convinced that it doesn’t deserve a nomination for the dumb legislation award of 2009. The bill doesn’t address any real problems that haven’t already been addressed. Does a street light shine into your bedroom, disrupting your sleep, and do you refuse to put up a window shade or curtain to block it? The city will take care of it for you, as Matthew Forman notes below. Is a neighbor aiming a floodlight at your house? That’s already illegal. Can public lighting technologies be updated to be more efficient and save energy? The administration can do that anytime it wants, if it goes through the proper public process; it doesn’t need a new law or an expensive contracted-out study to enable it to do so. Other “problems” that the bill addresses — street lights causing cancer, disrupting the breeding patterns of our native fauna (rats and pigeons, mostly, and would that it did work), affecting worker productivity, and posing a safety hazard because dark streets are safer than brightly lit streets — are fanciful or exaggerated. That leaves only the real purpose of the bill — making the city dark enough so that there will be a clear view of stars in the night sky.

The night sky at sea or in an isolated, rural area is beautiful, filled with stars that we can’t see in the city. But Pennsylvania Avenue at night in December is also beautiful, filled with white marble buildings lit so they glow and trees strung with clear white Christmas lights — and you can’t see that sight from an isolated rural area. There is a strain of environmentalism that believes that human beings and their works are a blight on the earth, that looks at the floodlit monuments in our city and sees only desecration of the natural world and “light pollution.” For those who are revolted by the cities that people have built, there is an easy solution; don’t live in them. Move out of them. The dark starry skies are still out there. To see them, just move a hundred miles away from a big city; don’t seek to deny people who prefer living in cities the delights of the city.

It’s part of our culture, part of everybody’s culture, really. Cheerful, inviting, lively cities are bright, well-lit cities. Urban people seek out the “bright lights, big city”; Paris’ charm is that it is the “city of lights.” Does Washington want to become the “city of dim bulbs”? Poorly lit cities are dismal, depressing; they are the Dark City; they are Batman’s Gotham. When people get together at night, we light a fire; that’s our nature. People have different preferences, and the same person can have different preferences at different times of life. Some people prefer the starry night sky that results from a total blackout, and others prefer the charms of a city. Life is full of choices. Make them; but make them for yourselves, not for others. Councilmember Cheh and Maryland Delegate Alfred Carr will hold a press conference on “light pollution” Monday at 2:00 p.m. in Livingston Park, Livingston Street and Western Avenue, NW.

Gary Imhoff


Brookland/CUA Metro Small Area Plan, PR 18-0046
John Feeley,

On Tuesday, March 3, over the objection of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5A and many Brookland and Michigan Park residents, the entire city council approved the Brookland/CUA Metro Small Area Plan. Its approval is a great disaster for our neighborhood. This plan (one designed for the benefit of developers and one that ignored much of the input of the community that spoke up concerning it) will act as the guideline for all Planned Unit Development proposals presented for the thirteen acres surrounding the Metro Station from now on. Our population will be increased to meet levels that existed in 1945, but not in the large single-family homes with the children and extended families of that bygone era. Rather, politicians seek a more cost-efficient, revenue-generating population in need of fewer services and with no illusions about living in a small town in town. When they settle here in the six-story condos that will surround the Metro, when they stop into one of the many copycat chains that they could have visited in any city, they may wonder, as they wait on the Metro platform to go to work, “What was so special about Brookland anyway?”

The only thing that can be salvaged from the council notes to the Office of Planning concerning this plan is the right to point out the record. The council recognizes the community’s call for park space at the Metro site, described as Brookland Green. If nothing else, this park space must be demanded over and over again as a last vestige of our community identity and self respect. We owe it to the people who came before us, who held off the freeway and twelve-story office towers and Metro Parking garages and townhouses we didn’t want in place of the Brooks Mansion. We owe it to Bernard Prior, Sam Abbott, Fred Huette, and all the people who fought for years so that this integrated, middle-class neighborhood with decent houses and shops could serve generations of poets, artists, statesmen, clergy, and just plain folks in a little fresh air and a little more open space then is customary or usual. We owe it to our neighbors near the Metro and near 12th Street to repeat over and over again, “They need park space buffers and stepped-down height levels near existing homes. They need it and so do new residents. We need it to preserve the character of our neighborhood.” We will have to say this a lot more and a lot louder now because none of these things is guaranteed by the Small Area Plan. But we are on the record saying that we want them and the council and the Office of Planning cannot deny it.


DC.Gov Web Site
T. Lassoc,

Just wondering whether you were familiar with the web site known as Digital Public Square — I haven’t seen it mentioned in any of your articles: Also, check out this article where we got the information about the web site:


Beach Drive on Weekends
Jack McKay,

With the sudden arrival of warm weather, the closed-to-traffic portions of Beach Drive are thick with bicyclists, children, roller bladers, parents with strollers, dog walkers, and people just enjoying the ambiance of Rock Creek National Park. Sunday, with the arrival of Daylight Saving Time, sunset comes at 7:10 p.m., and it’s not dark until after 7:30. By the end of June, sunset will come at 8:40, and it will be light until 9 p.m..

Why does the Park Service reopen Beach Drive to traffic at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday evening, long before it’s too dark to enjoy the outdoors? That results in automobiles suddenly appearing in the midst of the people on foot, or on bicycle, or on roller blades, on Beach Drive. Every curve of that winding road becomes a collision hazard when this weekend recreation path is abruptly turned into a highway, as automobile drivers suddenly encounter bicyclists and pedestrians on the road, neither expecting the other to be there.

Who decided on 7:00 p.m., and why? Why not 8:00 p.m., or even later, to make certain that recreational users are off the road before the cars are turned onto it? It’s Sunday, there’s no weekday rush of traffic, and there are no large numbers of automobile drivers needing to take Beach Drive through the park to the Maryland suburbs. The cars can take 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue, and don’t need Beach Drive on Sunday evening. Let the cars stay on those roads, and keep Beach Drive safe for weekend recreational use, at least until darkness falls.


Still Tilting at Windmills
Ed T. Barron,

Mayor Fenty and his minions continue to tilt at windmills as they pressure Congress to allow voting rights for the District of Columbia. The Economist Magazine (February 28 issue) has put this faulty proposition in clear focus. Even if passed by Congress, the proposition, if enacted into law, will be challenged in the courts. It is very clear that the only way voting rights for DC can be attained is through an amendment to the Constitution or for DC to become part of MD. An amendment to the Constitution, if passed, would be perceived to be the first step toward full statehood. Statehood, in the eyes of voting rights opponents, would allow DC, with only point two percent of the nation’s population. to have two senators with nearly two percent of the votes in the Senate. There is absolutely no possibility of this outcome. Let’s stop wasting time, money, and effort on an impossible task. Our leaders (do we have any?) should focus their talents and resources on fixing DC’s real problems.


Residential Assessments for Tax Year 2010
Peter Craig,

[Testimony to Jack Evans’ oversight hearing] I want to address three pressing issues relating to OTR’s proposed assessments for tax year 2010: 1) The massive overassessment of residential properties. 2) The lack of transparency in residential assessments. 3) The lack of any effective oversight of OTR’s assessment practices. There has been no effective oversight of the city’s assessment process for years. The same chronic problems arising from residential assessments still plague the system and, indeed, have become worse since the DC Court of Appeals rejected the efforts of citizens to correct the system last year, describing the lawsuit as an attempt to enjoin the collection of taxes, which it was not. The careful review of assessment practices by Judge Eugene Hamilton thus came to naught.

Current residential assessments highlight the problems: 1) OTR ignores its duty to assess the “estimated market value” of residential properties on the “valuation date,” which (for TY 2010) means January 1, 2009. A review of all sales of detached, single-family houses throughout the District of Columbia during December 2008 and January 2009 shows that the proposed assessments for TY 2010 are, on average, 25 percent too high. There is also severe discrimination, with more expensive houses favored, at the expense of lower value houses. 2) Similarly, in Cleveland Park, a comparison of the sales of all houses in during 2008 (adjusted for the downward trend in prices as shown by the Case-Shiller house price index) shows that, on average, Cleveland Park houses of all types are over-assessed by 25 percent. (Houses selling over $2 million are, in general, under-assessed)

3) The fundamental reason for this overassessment of residential properties is that the Office of Tax and Revenue continues to willfully violate the law as written. a) First, OTR assumes that the selling price shown on a deed is the same as “estimated market value,” which is the legal standard for assessment. They are not the same. “Estimated market value” is limited to the value of the real property being sold. The term, by definition, excludes the value of personal property involved in the sale (washers, dryers, stoves, dishwashers, refrigerators, etc.), services involved in the sale (agents’ 6 percent commission, legal fees, closing costs, staging costs, fix-up costs) and taxes (DC transfer taxes). In general, “estimated market value” is 85-90 percent of the gross sales price. b) Second, OTR ignores the valuation date (January 1, 2009), thus using unadjusted sales prices of up to one or two years ago when, as shown by the Case-Shiller DC house index, housing prices in the District have declined 28.8 percent since their peak on January 1, 2006.

4) There are many other anomalies in OTR’s assessments: a) Homeowners are assessed costs for unfinished basements at 25 percent of the floor area, but if they have finished basements they are not assessed any costs for their basement. b) OTR carefully hides many factors that affect its costing, such as: i) its “neighborhood multipliers,” ii) its definitions of “grades” of houses, and iii) its definitions of the condition of each house. None of these is shown on its Internet postings. c) OTR uses a different formula for land values for each of its defined neighborhoods, but within each neighborhood it uses the same multipliers, based solely on square feet, without regard to other factors such as slope, drainage, traffic, noise. Although some property owners can obtain reductions for these factors, those who benefit from the “one shoe fits all” approach keep their preferential land assessments. d) OTR understates depreciation for virtually all properties, using a maximum depreciation of 16 percent in its formulas for residential properties, compared with a maximum depreciation of 80 percent for commercial properties.

These and other defects in the assessment methodology are hidden from public scrutiny. To cure this problem, it is essential that the Property Record Cards of each residential property be posted on the Internet instead of the misleading entries now shown. The former Chief Assessor, Thomas Branham, promised this reform, but was overruled by his superiors and subsequently fired by Dr. Gandhi for no legitimate reason. He was, however, the best Chief Assessor that we have had in the past twenty years.

It is also essential that all relevant multipliers be shown in the annual “Assessor’s Manual” posted on the Internet. OTR refuses to do so. Thus, neighborhood multipliers are carefully kept secret: Not even a Freedom of Information inquiry will get you an answer. Also, the land pricing formulas are kept secret. Graphs are shown, but they do not permit comparisons of one property with another. Also, the “grade” or quality of construction of each house is kept secret. OTR also does everything to hide the failures of its residential assessments from the public and this council. One of the ignored requirements is to reassess residential properties whenever building permits have been issued and completed. OTR does not do so. Another requirement is that OTR submit annually an assessment-sales ratio analysis, reviewing how its assessments panned out in the year following such assessments. In over twenty years it has not done so. Instead, it submits studies comparing its assessments with the prior year’s sales — a practice condemned by the experts as “sales chasing.” Such studies prove nothing. The only valid assessment-sales ratio study done by or for OTR was that of Dr. Robert Gloudemans, which OTR commissioned for the recent lawsuit. That study showed that OTR’s residential assessments were 1) unacceptably discriminatory, and 2) benefited more expensive houses to the detriment of lower value houses.

These problems are not new. I have complained about them to Dr. Gandhi before and asked to meet with him about them. On deposition, he claimed he had never read my letters or petitions. His staff kept such matters away from him. I have complained about the unlawful activities of OTR before this committee for the past decade. This committee has done absolutely nothing to remedy the problem. As a last resort, I have complained about them in the courts. Now I have discovered the hard way that even judicial review is also being denied. After volunteering six thousand hours of my own time and winning a judgment in the Superior Court, I was told by the Court of Appeals that the taxpayers have no legal remedy because of the Anti-Injunction Act. The Anti-Injunction Act, however, only prohibits legal actions to enjoin the collection of taxes. By its terms, it is inapplicable to the citizens’ case, which did not seek to enjoin the collection of taxes, but rather to require OTR to adhere to the law.

Therefore, in closing, I urge that the council immediately start an overhaul of our residential tax assessment laws, to insure that in the future there is full transparency in residential assessments and full accountability in the courts. When I was Assistant General Counsel for Litigation in the US Department of Transportation (1967-1969), in the LBJ Administration, my boss, Allan Boyd, insisted that the actions of DOT be subject to review by the courts. He took the position that he could not personally oversee all of the Department’s many operations and he relied on the court system to help keep the Department on the right path. The mayor and Dr. Gandhi apparently take the opposite view. I ask that this be corrected. The misdeeds of OTR, which I have documented to this Committee ever since 2001, have not been corrected. Indeed, with the departure of Tom Branham, they have become worse. Corrective legislation is overdue, and I would be happy to assist the committee in this task.

A final word about BRPAA. It has been my experience that since the departure of Mr. Paul Strauss as chairman, there has been a sharp decline in the quality of BRPAA decisions. I handled three residential appeals this last fall. My presentations were arbitrarily limited to fifteen minutes. The panel did not include any lawyer and was ignorant of the relevant laws defining “estimated market value” and the “valuation date,” and did not know a valid “comparables” study from an invalid one. I asked that their decision be issued by December 31, and submitted a draft decision. Instead, I received a brief one-paragraph decision two months after the hearing, demonstrating that they were not familiar with either the record or the law.


Gabe Goldberg, gabe at gabegold dot com

Our esteemed editor said [themail, March 4]: “Anybody who reads The Washington Post and The Washington Times regularly recognizes that they both have biases, prejudices, and agendas. The Post leans to the left and favors Democrats; the Times leans to the right and favors Republicans; and this is reflected not just on their editorial pages but in their editorial choices for the news pages. . . . Web sites provide balance by allowing comments and links to opposing viewpoints, and their readers search out balance by reading a variety of web sites, just as reading both the Post and the Times provides balance.”

Interestingly, this exactly matches what a speaker said last night at the FBI Citizens Academy I’m attending — whatever your beliefs, don’t just read/hear what reinforces them. Change stations, buy competing publications, etc., to get the whole story. The speaker’s point was that, even aside from conscious and unconscious biases, no reporter, article, editor, publication, radio or TV station can include entire stories. So breaking reading/viewing/listening/thinking habits rounds out the picture. As well, this follows the sage advice to know thine enemy. All I need is more time in the day for getting what I agree with, let alone what I want to argue with.


Bloggers Need Papers
Star Lawrence,

Ever hear the expression, “So much has been written about everything it’s hard to find anything out”? I see newspapers at the top, then TV, then maybe the weak sister so-called news mags, then radio, then blogs feeding off of the basics and torquing them, then newspapers printing blog stuff, then TV, then. . . . Now the top is being sawed off by economics and bad management — and this train wreck we used to call our economy.

I have started a blog on how to cope with this mess. Come do the Hopey Copey with me: Maybe I will get sawed off. . . .


News Organizations Can Usually Do a Better Job
Edward Cowan,

Gary makes a couple of fair points about newspapers in arguing that so-called citizen reporters and bloggers do as good a job. But his conclusion, overall, is not well supported. Newspapers do, as he says, have biases that are manifest in what they write about: the flaws of business (the left), the soft way some courts treat criminals (the right), and so on. He argues that amateur reporting and outright opinion writing, on the whole, offer readers as much balance as do mainstream newspapers that purport to give the news without opinion. That may be true for readers who peruse many publications and blogs. But how many people of working age, especially parents of young children, can do that?

The merit of mainstream newspapers is that, by and large, they try to be balanced within a single article. Sometimes that balance is derided as the he-said, she-said approach to news-writing. That derision comes from people who prefer that newspapers embrace and express a point of view. Many people have told me they are more trusting of newspapers that try to “play it straight.” (Disclosure: I have worked for UPI, The New York Times, and other employers. I now write, pro bono, intermittent reports to DC voters about District affairs.)

News stories now are more interpretive than they were when I entered the news business in 1957. That has its merits and its problems. Done responsibly, interpretive news stories give readers context and background; they point out when someone is contradicting what he or his organization said not so long ago. News organizations can do better than amateurs because they have better files (often kept by a paid librarian or newsroom assistants) and because their stories often are written by specialists who maintain — mentally and mechanically — a running data base of what has happened. Often one reporter digs out the background to weave into another reporter’s story about the day’s event. And editors, who are paid second-guessers, cast a questioning eye on copy (or should). Some stories that professional news organizations can report more authoritatively than can “citizen journalists” include accidents on Metrorail and bus lines or other mishaps, like fires and sniper rampages, where a news editor can assign several reporters to cover the disaster scene, police headquarters, hospitals, and so on; a (broadcast) presidential news conference that touches on a variety of topics, as most do; a diplomatic event that necessarily issues credentials in limited numbers, chiefly to mainstream news organizations; the threat or actuality of an epidemic, where professional reporters trained in health issues, and with access to doctors and scientists, invariably will do a better job; complex financial stories; the legislative process, where what C-span broadcasts from House or Senate floor omits the backstairs deal-making that shapes outcomes.

The list could be extended, but the shape of the argument is clear. News organizations, usually with a commitment to factual and fair reporting, overall do a more complete and balanced job of telling the story. Sometimes it takes more than one day. As for opinion, everyone is entitled to have one. But the facts and balance matter.


Merck and Gardasil
Meredith Manning,

There have been several pieces in themail recently regarding Mr. Catania’s efforts to encourage HPV vaccination of District schoolchildren. I am writing to clarify a few points. I don’t take a position on whether Mr. Catania should have allowed the vaccine’s opponents to testify. But both the previous posters voiced objections to the vaccine as under tested and dangerous to women’s’ health. The fact of the matter is that Gardisil is approved by the FDA and protects women against diseases caused by human pampillomavirus including cervical cancer, genital warts, and pre-cancerous cervical and vaginal lesions. Protection against these diseases is not only a great thing but should be championed by the District, just as Mr. Catania proposes. The opponents of the vaccine seem to believe that FDA is untrustworthy and perhaps encouraging teenage girls to have sex. Well, to that I say hogwash. FDA’s drug approval standards are the strictest in the world, and vaccines have eliminated some of the most deadly diseases known to the planet. We are lucky that Merck has studied and brought to market a drug like Gardisil. We should all support Mr. Catania’s effort and vaccination of girls and women.

[“Meredith Manning is the Co-director of Hogan & Hartson’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology practice group. She primarily counsels companies and trade associations in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry on an array of issues surrounding US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) review, approval, and oversight of drug and biological products. She has broad experience addressing issues surrounding clinical trials, drug and biologic drug approval standards, and FDA compliance. She counsels drug and biotechnology clients concerning enforcement matters threatened or brought by the FDA and other regulatory bodies, including issues surrounding advertising and promotion of prescription drugs. This includes counseling companies about anticipated enforcement, responding to FDA inspectional observations and warning letters, and negotiating consents decrees with the FDA and the US Department of Justice (DOJ),” — Gary Imhoff]


Denise Wiktor,

Without voicing my onion on the Gardisil shot (which I have strong feelings about), there is another reason for not requiring it for sixth graders. I just took my eleven and a half year old in for her annual check up and, based upon old information, was expecting she would need a varicella vaccine booster and a tetanus shot. Without the Gardisil it is now five vaccines (six if you count the double one) for eleven and twelve year olds: a tetanus-peruses, varicella, meningitis (which used to be for college-age kids; now the age has been lowered), Hepatitis A (new); and a flu vaccine. The handouts for these vaccines are geared toward small children. I had one cranky child through the weekend and seriously questioned my judgment at giving her all these vaccines. Varicella, for example, has some reaction in one out of twenty-five infants but in one third of adolescents and adults, according to the CDC web site. Hepatitis A has some reaction is about everyone, and tetanus makes you feel as if you were punched in the arm for a week. I am glad I did not subject her to one more vaccine. Gardisil was presented with a vocal question mark, but there was no indication it was voluntary.


Globe Lighting
Matt Forman,

Regarding the proposed Smart Lighting Act of 2009 as described in the last issue of themail, admittedly light pollution is not the most pressing issue of the day, and perhaps the environmental arguments are not very convincing. But there are practical issues here about quality of life and government waste that I suggest still need to be solved. The so-called Washington globe lights shine in a 360-degree direction, including into the windows of neighboring buildings, apparently to the great annoyance of some of the residents. See

I’m not entirely clear why window shades don’t solve the problem in most cases, but I gather some people would like to look out their windows in the evening without the glare of the streetlight shining in. (Imagine living in a Georgetown waterfront condo with floor-to-ceiling windows and you’re trying to see the view across the Potomac. Do we really need historic globe lighting on the Whitehurst’s concrete barriers?) Anyway, the city, if requested, will paint the house-side of the globe with black paint (and tacitly permits residents to do it themselves), to prevent the light from shining in the direction of the house. However, such painting results in the sidewalk being dark, contrary to one of the very purposes of the streetlight, which is to illuminate the sidewalk for safety reasons. In the meantime, the cost of electricity is rising, and most of the money we’re paying to illuminate the streets and sidewalks is instead being used to illuminate black paint and the sky. (The globes may have been intentionally designed to uplight the trees as a decorative element, but this concept has probably been lost over the years because the newer poles are too tall relative to the trees. For more information, see Public Street Illumination in Washington, DC by Sarah Noreen, George Washington University, 1975.) So it seems that to prevent glare into windows but still illuminate the sidewalks for safety, and also to prevent wasting electricity, one solution might be to redesign the lamps to direct the light downward.


Light Pollution
Ann Loikow,

I would like to support the idea of making sure that the energy we use to power our street lights actually lights up the sidewalks and streets and not the sky. This would help us really see better at night and keep more light out of the eyes of people trying to sleep. I would urge that street lights be mounted lower and have shields on top so they light up the sidewalk and not the tops of trees and people’s second floor bedrooms. I also saw the most amazing skies this summer in Mongolia. People in this country have no idea what they have never seen. The big dipper and north star were like giant neon signs in the sky and blindingly bright. The universe is extraordinary, but we block it with our wasted light that goes up creating a light smog rather than down where we really want it.


Light Pollution
John Henry Wheeler, Tenleytown,

Dorothy Brizill belittles Mary Cheh and Michael Brown [themail, March 4] for introducing legislation to reduce light pollution in DC because there are other “real” concerns. Her logic is the same as arguing that cops shouldn’t be stopping people for traffic offenses because we have greater crimes being committed. Therefore, until we eliminate all murders in DC, no enforcement should be taken against other crimes. I don’t think so.



Capitol Hill Energy Coop, March 10
Lisa Alfred,

Meeting of the Capitol Hill Energy Coop on Tuesday, March 10, at 7:00-9:00 p.m. at the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, 421 Seward Square, SE, Eastern Market Metro station, to discuss what resources the District provides to residents, including subsidies and tax credits for renewable/green energy. All are invited to talk with Emil King and Willie Vazquez, District Department of the Environment; and Sara Loveland, DC Greenworks. For more information:


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