Montgomery Council nears final approval of major plan for White Oak

The Montgomery County Council cleared the way Tuesday for final approval of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan next week, deciding that the potential economic benefits for a long-neglected region of the county overrode concerns about traffic.

In a series of straw votes, the council approved the major elements of a land-use plan that would allow Montgomery and Percontee, a private developer, to eventually create a 300-acre town center and hub for medical and life-sciences businesses near Route 29 and Industrial Parkway.

Officials envision an employment center that could generate as many as 10,000 new jobs over the next quarter-century, spurred by the presence of the Food and Drug Administration headquarters nearby. Zoning on the properties could ultimately allow 5,300 units of housing and 7 million square feet of commercial space.

The plan also changes zoning and land-use regulations designed to energize new residential construction and commercial renewal in the White Oak and Hillandale communities.

The council gave tentative approval to the plan over the objections of some Silver Spring-area community groups. They contended that an overemphasis on housing and insufficient attention to “staging”-- county policies that require new construction and adequate public facilities to go forward together — will overwhelm an already congested Route 29 and the surrounding road network.

The council did trim proposed residential densities in some parts of the plan. But most members said they had an overriding obligation to create an investment climate that might bring jobs and commerce to the eastern sector of Montgomery. They described the region as isolated by a series of poor planning decisions over the last three decades.

“Today we’ve made a statement saying that we’re righting a wrong,” said Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty).

“The fact of the matter is that there is traffic in White Oak and there will continue to be traffic ... unless people start driving drones,” said Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At-Large), chair of the council’s planning committee.

The council did approve an amendment, offered by Council member George Leventhal (D-At-Large) that calls for County Executive Isiah Leggett to have a financing plan in place for a bus rapid-transit line for Route 29 within the next two years.

The council’s planning staff had expressed misgivings about the overall size of the plan, and suggested that construction be allowed to progress only if it meets specific benchmarks demonstrating that a certain percentage of people will be traveling by some means other than private cars (public transit, bicycles, on foot).

But the county government and Percontee contend that too many requirements in the plan will make it more difficult to obtain favorable financing. The council accepted recommendations by Floreen for a set of conditions that would treat the “Life Sciences/FDA Village” not as a suburban area but as potential urban center, with allowances for higher volumes of vehicle traffic at lower speeds. It would also require a “non auto driver mode share” of 30 percent for new development.

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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