Silver Spring Homeowners Association Debate Raises Question of Who Actually Represents a Community

An April 30 Greater Greater Washington article explored the sometimes controversial issue of who actually constitutes and represents a community.  The question can raise heated debate between individuals, home owners associations, and community groups.  Local governments are sometimes be caught in the middle of such debates, which can create both political and planning challenges.  The article highlighted a recent unsuccessful effort by some members of the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA) in Silver Spring to prevent new Chelsea Heights townhome residents from joining SOECA. Currently nearly all of the members of SOECA live in single-family homes.  From the article:

Last week, the SOECA board proposed an amendment to the civic association’s bylaws that would limit membership to “residents of the R-60 zoned areas,” or people living in single-family homes. The amendment would effectively bar the new townhouse residents from joining. The association already keeps out people living in a handful of small apartment buildings within the neighborhood’s borders, which are drawn to exclude nearby high-rise apartment buildings.

The proposal unleashed a fiery conversation in the normally sleepy neighborhood, both online and at a community meeting last night that 50 people attended. But after a vote, neighbors voted 32-17 against the change.

The article enumerated listed several concerns raised by SOECA members:

Why propose barring the future residents of Chelsea Heights from the neighborhood association? On the community listserv, some residents worried that the Chelsea Heights residents could join the civic association and “out-vote” existing residents on neighborhood issues, such as whether to restrict cut-through traffic.

“Will their interests as members of a higher-density tract development coincide with, complement or be in conflict with those of a neighborhood association composed of residents in single-family homes?” asked one resident.

The article also noted that some neighboring community groups do not limit their memberships based on housing type or a project that constitutes new growth and opined that such limitations can ultimately undermine and weaken a community group:

Liz Brent, a real estate agent and Seven Oaks-Evanswood resident for 20 years, says that the disagreement reflects a disconnect between how long-time residents and newer residents see the neighborhood.

“There are people who come [to Silver Spring] for the transportation, come here for the walkability, come here for the diversity,” she says. “I’m not saying the people who came here 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago don’t want the diversity. But people who are coming here now…that’s critical. It’s a sea change for people who have been here for 30 and 40 and 50 years.” …

Civic associations have a lot of sway in Montgomery County politics, largely because they’re so organized. They provide a voice to thousands of residents, and they have done a lot of good in the county, from organizing community events to fighting highway extensions that would have cut across Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

But civic groups also disenfranchise many people, whether by restricting membership to certain residents or by becoming adversarial towards people who disagree. That’s one reason why participation in civic associations across Montgomery County is in decline.