Why Not: Secede From Washington?

Yesterday, GM’s fellow Georgetown blogger Carol Joynt suggested a provocative solution to Georgetown’s problems: secession. She writes:

We could be the City of Georgetown or the Town of Georgetown. Regardless, have our own mayor, our own council, our own police force (on some streets we already do), our own public school system, contract out – like DC does – for a lot of the utility work (think: plowing snow), our own parking enforcement, our own ABC Board, and use our local tax dollars for Georgetown’s own needs. We already provide a local bus system.

Reading her post reminded GM that he has long been thinking about adding another installment in his Why Not? series about this very question. As long as Carol has started the conversation, GM might as well chime in.

Bit of History:

Bit of history first: The municipality of Georgetown was created as a town by Maryland in 1789. When the District of Columbia was formed from parts of Maryland and Virginia, Georgetown was included. But it remained a separate municipality within the District until 1871 when it was merged with the city of Washington. Ever since then the city of Washington and the District of Columbia have been one in the same (actually, technically speaking the city of Washington ceased to exist in 1871 as well).

The merger with Washington was not popular in Georgetown. It coincided with the creation of a District Board of Public Works, which was given the power to initiate huge projects across the city. The Board was lead by the infamous Alexander “Boss” Sheperd who quickly bankrupted in city with his massive public improvements. One thing that really ticked Georgetowners off was the incredibly disruptive regrading projects that resulted in lots of buried first floors (you can still see the regrading all over Georgetown today).

Some Georgetowners have regretted this merger on-and-off ever since. In fact, even before the merger with Washington, Georgetowners were contemplating retrocession to Maryland. In 1838, Georgetown citizens met at the Lancaster School and drew up a motion to request retrocession of all of the District land west of Rock Creek. The motion was put to a vote and it passed. A committee was formed to visit Annapolis, where the idea was favorably received. Congress, however, wasn’t having any of it and never formally considered the request.

So Back to Today:

GM can say right off that the idea of secession of Georgetown is, of course, totally ridiculous and never going to see the light of day. There is no way the government of the District or Congress would approve. And if there’s one thing that can get the rest of the District to hate Georgetown more, it would be to agitate for secession.

So the brief answer to today’s why not is: Because it’s never going to happen, that’s why. Whether you’re talking about full-fledged retrocession to Maryland or even just the restoration of the municipality of Georgetown within the District of Columbia, it doesn’t matter. It won’t ever happen.

But that doesn’t mean that some form of increased neighborhood autonomy is out of the question.

What’s Wrong With What We Got

To a certain group of people, the idea of more autonomy for something along the lines of the Georgetown ANC is bothersome, to say the least. That is because they (rightly) view the ANC as primarily engaged in the business of obstruction. It’s what the ANC does best: it stops home expansions, it stops bars from building roof decks, it stops curb cuts from being built, etc. It doesn’t actually do any of these things, but the government agencies that do actually do these things listen closely to the ANC.

But the ANC is a product of its limited powers. Since it is most effective in obstruction, it attracts the attention and voices of obstructionists and frustrates those looking for a more proactive body. And to be fair, a lot (maybe most, depending on the issue) of residents want the ANC to obstruct. But GM believes that if the ANC or a body like it were given more proactive powers, it would cease being primarily an obstructionist body.

A Citizen’s Improvement District

So what GM would like to propose would be a Citizens’ Improvement District, or CID. Like the BID, but with people, it would levy a tax on all who live in Georgetown. It could be based on either income or real estate value, or even a flat tax. Moreover, if we are successful at bringing performance parking to Georgetown, the added revenue from the meters could be put into the same pot.

An elected board could then use that money right here in Georgetown. Like CAG and the BID does, the CID could use part of its funds to pay for additional reimbursable details of MPD officers. It could use some funds to pay for certain public works projects that fail to get the attention of the District government. It could contribute to the Hyde PTA. You name it…

A good model for this sort of idea is Chevy Chase Village, which levies an additional real estate tax on its residents. Through the village’s Board of Managers it spends that money on road maintenance, a police force and other items. Residents of Chevy Chase Village still pay all the same taxes to Montgomery County as the rest of the county and receive the same services. They simply get additional services from their village too. (Caveat: GM is not an expert on Maryland municipality law. It could operate differently than he understands.)

It is worth noting, though, that the Chevy Chase Village Board of Managers is notoriously NIMBY, a feature most on display during the Purple Line fight. Maybe it’s just unavoidable that a local government gives expression to the loudest NIMBY voices. It would be a challenge for the CID, but so long as its powers and responsibilities are more tailored towards fighting for things as opposed to fighting against things, the worst traits of NIMBYism could hopefully be restrained. But maybe GM is just being hopelessly naive.

Of course if it were in fact successful, this idea could be applied throughout the city. There’s no reason it would have to be limited to Georgetown.

The CID could never replicate the long lost municipality of Georgetown. But it could go a long way towards improving the daily lives of Georgetowners without causing us to shirk our responsibilities to the rest of the District. And if it worked here, it could be exported to other neighborhoods and improve lives across the city.





Filed under Why Not

9 responses to “Why Not: Secede From Washington?

  1. Ken Archer

    IMHO, a decision to live in Georgetown is more than a decision to choose Georgetown over McLean, Bethesda or Great Falls. It’s a decision to live in a city.

    And living in a city, much more than living in a suburb, entails participation in the struggles and triumphs of the whole city. Georgetowners who don’t want to shoulder the struggles of other people should not live in a city. You can’t have the liveable, multi-use benefits of city living but reject the sharing of burdens central to city living. They are two sides of the same coin and are inseparable.

  2. Old Georgetowner

    “And living in a city, much more than living in a suburb, entails participation in the struggles and triumphs of the whole city.”

    It’s funny, I think that *every single time* I see the neighborhood crime figures.

  3. I remember this idea being tossed around when I moved here in 1989, and Marion Berry was destroying the city. A lot of Georgetowners wanted their own government. And given the fact that in fact it once had its own government, it’s a worthy question.

    DC often complains it’s not like other states by the mere virtue of not having any state-level government. What if DC moved some government functions to a new district-wide entity, and other, more local issues to city governments – presumably one for “Washington” and one for Georgetown. What functions would be more appropriate for the city level? Roads, zoning, etc?

    And perhaps someday Arlington could return as a city within the District of Columbia – then we’d have a state-like government with a whopping three cities!

    In fact you could argue for a federal enclave to be another separate city, perhaps with a commission appointed by the feds, to manage the federal core around the White House, the Mall, and the Capitol.

  4. East Georgetowner

    Although GM generally has excellent judgment, I am afraid he is off base on the suggestion of an added tax on Georgetown residents to fund a “CID.” An essential point of any secessionist movement, as Carol Joynt noted, would be the fact that Georgetowners *already* pay overwhelmingly disproportionate amounts of income and personal property taxes. We are not just “sharing burdens” with other DC residents, we are carrying a large portion of the burden and getting inadequate city services in return and living under an often corrupt and incompetent local government. So, while I hate to disagree with GM, new taxes for Georgetown residents are not the answer — instead, we need increased accountability of government officials for the return on the taxes that we already pay, or, if that’s not possible, it is legitimate to consider an independent governing system. GM is of course right that secession is not ever likely to happen, but such a movement might have the benefit of impressing upon local goverment officials the message that certain citizens are frustrated by pulling a huge part of the load but not receiving quality, competent goverment in return.

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