Anxiety Over Growth Felt On Montgomery Council

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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A closely divided Montgomery County Council decided yesterday to retain the county's current growth policy, amid signs that reports of disarray at the agency that oversees development are heightening election-season tensions among members.

The council voted 5 to 4 to keep intact its growth policy, an influential document that establishes where and how the county will create housing and jobs. The council, which reviews the policy every two years, elected to keep the one it adopted in 2003, even though its chief architect, council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), had pushed for more restrictions on growth.

But an unlikely coalition -- three council members who supported stricter controls two years ago and two who generally support more relaxed regulations -- formed to deliver an unexpected rebuff of Silverman, a candidate for county executive.

In a separate, preliminary vote that also reflects the anxiety already voiced by some about a potential anti-development backlash at the polls next year, the council failed to get a majority to support construction of more than 6,000 housing units and retail around the Shady Grove Metro station.

Four council members supported Shady Grove's master plan, and three abstained until a final vote in January.

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who voted against a new growth policy and the Shady Grove plan, said the decisions show that voter sentiment is shifting.

"I'm out knocking on doors and visiting my constituents, and I am hearing this regularly: 'Development is out of control,' " said Andrews, a longtime advocate of slower growth.

A series of recent actions have put council members on edge regarding the county's political climate.

Last week, the council's investigative arm issued a withering critique of the Department of Park and Planning, the agency responsible for overseeing the development of Clarksburg Town Center, where hundreds of homes were built in violation of approved plans. This month, Rockville passed an ordinance that allows officials to reject proposed developments if schools, streets and other public services are overburdened.

What makes the rejection of the proposed growth policy so surprising -- and so indicative of the turmoil on the council -- is that it would have been more restrictive than the current blueprint.

In 2003, the council voted 5 to 4 to revise its growth plan to raise so-called impact taxes, which are charged to developers based on the type and location of new housing. But the council, over the objections of the Planning Board, also eliminated a provision called "policy area review," which established formulas for determining whether certain communities were too overwhelmed by traffic to sustain new housing.

The move to eliminate that provision, led by Silverman, effectively lifted bans on new subdivisions in Aspen Hill, Clarksburg, Olney, Montgomery Village and Fairland/White Oak.

Civic activists decried the decision. They said the council, led by Silverman and other members of the "End Gridlock" slate -- supported by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) in 2002 -- had opened these areas to runaway growth.

This year, the council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Silverman, moved to set a ceiling on the number of jobs that can be created in Bethesda and to reduce congestion standards in other parts of the county. That meant it would be harder for construction to occur without corresponding upgrades to roads, financed by developers.

But because the proposal did not restore policy area review, Andrews, council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and Praisner (D-Eastern County) opposed the measure in an informal vote Monday.

Silverman, Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) supported the changes.

By yesterday, however, Floreen and Knapp, usually reliable pro-growth votes, had switched sides. Election-year considerations appeared to factor into their decisions.

Floreen said she switched because opponents of the proposed growth plan made promises about revisiting policy area view that she believed they had no intention of keeping.

Knapp, who represents Clarksburg, said he switched his vote because he was leery of being labeled "pro-growth or anti-growth."


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