Rural Life vs. the Road
Friday, August 5, 2005
Georgia Avenue from Norbeck Road to just south of Olney's town center is one of Montgomery's rural gateways, a place where the downcounty ends and the upcounty begins.
The blocks of apartment complexes, punctuated by fast-food places and convenience stores, south of Norbeck give way in these three miles to a driving range, a produce stand and tree-shaded single-family homes set comfortably back from the road.
Take a right off Georgia onto Batchellors Forest Road and the transition is complete. There are deer, streams and fields of overgrown grass -- just the way John H. Lyons, an antitrust lawyer in downtown Washington, likes it. From the road, the stone mailbox is the only sign of his home. His white clapboard farmhouse -- with a barn that is home to nine goats, two horses and six chickens -- sits on nine acres at the top of a hill.
But Lyons and others in Olney fear that the rural gateway will become a floodgate if the $2.4 billion intercounty connector from Gaithersburg to Laurel becomes a reality. They say a planned overpass on Georgia north of Norbeck will bring more traffic to an already congested intersection.
"I think the whole area will look and feel more suburban and less semirural," said Lyons, president of the Greater Olney Civic Association. "There will be pressures and arguments to say, 'The ICC is here -- let's take advantage of it.' "
Development defines the downcounty. Luxury condominiums and high-end retail dominate Bethesda, and places such as Silver Spring and Wheaton are well on their way to being revitalized. County planners say that the north is meant to be different. But residents see a horizon filled with threats.
Megachurches, taking advantage of county policy, are buying land in the 93,000-acre agricultural reserve, mostly in northwestern Montgomery. This fall, County Council members will consider a proposal to restrict church construction in the reserve. Northwestern residents also worry that someday a "techway" linking Montgomery and Northern Virginia, debated for years, could be built.
County officials acknowledge that there are pressures pushing development north because the south is virtually built out but say the connector is not a factor. A more northerly route for the road was rejected precisely because of its potential impact on the area's environment and rural character.
Planners say they foresee no circumstances that would cause the county to retreat from its commitment -- as codified in master plans reviewed every 15 or 20 years -- to preserve open space and farmland in the upcounty.
"The development of Montgomery County is guided by our master plans," said Edgar Gonzalez, deputy director of transportation policy for the Department of Public Works and Transportation. "The fact that the ICC is built -- is that going to increase density in Montgomery County? Absolutely no."
Instead, planners said, the connector will ease congestion on roads in residential neighborhoods, make Baltimore-Washington International Airport more accessible to the upcounty and encourage economic development in its own corridor as well as Interstate 270's.
"It really opens that area up, and as a result, makes the upcounty more attractive to larger corporate entities," said County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).