Montgomery planners address Clarksburg

July 22, 2013

Montgomery County planning staff has recommended new limits on construction along Interstate 270 near Clarksburg Town Center, citing the need to fulfill the original vision of the community as a walkable urban village and to protect the fragile Ten Mile Creek watershed.

The recommendations, if approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board and ultimately the County Council, would amend the original 1994 master plan for Clarksburg. The changes would place sharp restrictions on plans by Pulte Homes to build 1,000 single- family homes on 538 acres west of I-270. County staff proposes to limit development to a little over 200 homes, and turn much of the site into open space.

Planners specified fewer changes to a development on the other side of I-270 just west of Town Center, where the Peterson Cos. wants to build 450,000 square feet of high-end retail, dining and housing on 100 acres. They are recommending a small reduction in the project’s footprint, which currently calls for impervious surface on about 33 percent of the site. The staff wants to set a 25 percent cap to limit pollution of Ten Mile Creek by storm runoff.

Peterson retail division chief Taylor Chess did not respond to phone messages Monday. In a statement, Lewis Birnbaum, president of Pulte’s Mid-Atlantic division, said the company was “highly disappointed.”

The recommendations are due to be presented Thursday evening to the Planning Board, which is not scheduled to take final action until October. It could, however, ask for changes in the staff draft before it goes to a public hearing, which is set for Sept. 10.

The report is at the center of a renewed debate over the future of Clarksburg Town Center, which was supposed to be anchored by a neighborhood-
serving retail core that would be the center of village life. But disputes with the original developer, Newland Communities, aggravated by a sour economy, have left the village hub an empty field. A new developer, Elm Street, is expected to present revised plans for the Town Center core soon.

Many residents, eager to see retail activity, welcome the Peterson project and a mixed-use development in Cabin Branch west of I-270 (approved by the Planning Board last week) as a chance to shop without venturing into Germantown or Damascus. Others fear it will compromise the original vision for Clarksburg, weakening the prospects for Town Center while degrading water quality in Ten Mile Creek.

Mary Dolan, chief of functional planning and policy for the Montgomery County Planning Department, said the Peterson development is designed primarily for a regional market and should not have a depleting effect on Town Center. At the same time, she added, new county Planning Director Gwen Wright thinks that “retail begets more retail,” and that having the Peterson project close by could stimulate development of Town Center.

Environmentalists are expected to voice opposition to the staff draft, contending that it doesn’t do enough to protect the Ten Mile Creek watershed. Ten Mile Creek flows into Little Seneca Reservoir, which feeds the Potomac and is considered part of the region’s emergency water supply.

“We know from the science that each additional acre of pavement funnels pollution into Ten Mile Creek,” said Diane Cameron, conservation director for the Audubon Naturalist Society.

But Dolan said that existing development has already degraded the quality of Ten Mile Creek east of I-270 to no more than “fair” condition. The county will require Peterson to maintain about half of its site as “green in some way,” with buffer zones protecting the stream.

“We’re hoping we can keep it in fair condition, but it is unlikely to return to good condition,” Dolan said.

The segment of the watershed on the Pulte site is in far better condition, Dolan said, and would be more adversely affected by new construction.

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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