Montgomery County Council approves White Oak Science Gateway plan

The Montgomery County Council gave final approval Tuesday to an ambitious land-use plan designed to spur creation of a new science-focused town center in the county’s long-neglected eastern sector.

The White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan envisions housing, retail and a hub for medical and life-sciences research adjacent to the Food and Drug Administration headquarters at Route 29 and Industrial Parkway. The plan also adjusts zoning and land-use regulations with the goal of energizing new residential construction and commercial renewal in the White Oak and Hillandale communities.

The plan’s 300-acre centerpiece is “LifeSci Village,” a joint venture of the county and Percontee, a private developer, on land that once held a cement plant and a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission sludge-processing facility. Officials envision an employment center catalyzed by the presence of the FDA that, if built to its maximum allowable size, could generate as many as 10,000 jobs over the next quarter-century.

County leaders hope to establish an economic center of gravity for a region that has been all but cut out of the public and private investment poured into Bethesda, Silver Spring, Shady Grove and other areas of Montgomery over the past three decades.

From 1986 until 2004, while much of the county boomed, officials kept the eastern region under a development moratorium. A range of factors drove the ban: lack of mass transit, traffic congestion on Route 29 and community opposition to policies that might add to what many residents regarded as a surplus of low- and moderate-income apartments and townhouses in the area. But in recent years, demand has grown for dining, shopping and other amenities of the kind enjoyed by residents in Bethesda, Silver Spring and Rockville.

The plan was passed despite objections by some community groups further south on the Route 29 corridor near Silver Spring, who are concerned about increased traffic. They opposed the council’s decision to relax and redefine certain traffic forecasts that are part of county “staging” policies that require halts in private construction if public infrastructure is not in place.

But council members said they had a larger obligation to create an investment climate that might bring jobs and commerce to the eastern sector of Montgomery. Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) said that imposing excessive regulatory burdens on developers would increase the likelihood that jobs and investment would go to “Bangalore, Bethesda or Tysons,” not the east part of the county.

Planners said that as the sciences center becomes more of a destination, it will ultimately relieve some of the projected rise in traffic downstream on Route 29. Under virtually any scenario, however, congestion will worsen. The master plan was amended last week to commit the county to devising a method of funding a bus rapid-transit line for Route 29.

The council passed the master plan 8 to 0, with Marc Elrich (D-At Large) abstaining. Elrich said that he was troubled by the lack of staging but that a “no” vote could be construed as opposition to job creation in the area.

Also on Tuesday, the council received a briefing from school and county officials on plans to accommodate unaccompanied minors from the border. At this point, the county is only tangentially involved, officials said. Nonprofit group providers will take the lead in finding foster homes for any children who do come to Montgomery.

School officials told the council that in the school year that just ended, the 151,000-student system enrolled 107 youths who had been detained at the border and who had found family or legal guardians in Montgomery. Chrisandra Richardson, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for special education and student services, said that there is evidence of an increase in enrollment of students from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — although they are not necessarily unaccompanied minors. Of the 203 foreign students enrolled this month, 66 are from those three countries.

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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