Montgomery council deliberates on plan for eastern edge of county

The Montgomery County Council began deliberations Tuesday on a land-use plan to bring jobs to the county’s long-neglected eastern edge, but at a cost: added congestion on roads already choked with rush-hour traffic.

The heart of the plan, called the White Oak Science Gateway, is a joint venture of the county government and a private developer to create a hub for medical and life sciences research on land east of Route 29, off Industrial Parkway.

Officials envision an employment center that could produce as many as 10,000 new jobs, catalyzed by the presence of the Food and Drug Administration headquarters next door.

Adventist HealthCare has also purchased land nearby for as a possible site for Washington Adventist Hospital, pending approval from state regulators.

The plan calls for the redevelopment of the White Oak Shopping Center and the Hillandale area along New Hampshire Avenue into more walkable communities that would supported by stops on the county’s projected bus rapid transit system.

But under any of the multiple versions of the project presented to the council by county staff at a work session Tuesday, the plan will require a painful trade-off: economic development for an increase in traffic.

Even with various forms of bus rapid transit — in which traffic lanes are reserved exclusively for bus service — commuting time is likely to worsen along Route 29, a major route for drivers from Howard and Montgomery counties into Silver Spring and the District, if White Oak is fully redeveloped.

Council members were told, in essence, that under the best-case scenario, they can only limit the increase in vehicular traffic, not prevent an increase altogether.

“The east county has transportation problems. We’re not going to solve those problems with any kind of land-use decisions we make,” said Montgomery Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier. “But we can do things to make it better.”

Neighborhood groups along the Route 29 corridor say they want the jobs and economic activity that the science gateway promises but only if construction comes in stages linked to specific transportation and road improvements. The council will have to decide whether it will require such staging.

Community group leaders also contend that final action on the project, scheduled for July 29, is being pushed through too fast.

“It’s no way to run a railroad,” said Barry Wides, president of the North White Oak Civic Association. “Everyone we’ve talked to says the council has to approve this in July. But nobody can give you a good answer other than they’ve been working on this long enough. The whole system is a little bit rigged in terms of moving this forward.”

The project has been the focus of intense lobbying and consulting activity by the private developer, White Oak-based Percontee. The county and Percontee own adjoining lots on the 300-acre site.

Percontee paid attorney Stephen Elmendorf of the firm Linowes and Blocher more than $400,000 in lobbying fees in 2013, according to the Montgomery County Ethics Commission.

Another attorney, Gus Bauman of Beveridge & Diamond, was paid more than $40,000 by the developer (Bauman is chairing the reelection campaign of council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who is head of the council’s planning committee).

Together, the fees paid to Elmendorf and Bauman represent nearly a third of the $1.6 million in fees collected by registered lobbyists doing business with the county in 2013.

Elmendorf said in an interview in January that the fees largely represent time spent consulting with aides to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to work out questions involving allowable density for the White Oak project and the traffic it would generate.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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