Public Must Be Involved in Planning Development, Growth

Thursday, May 4, 2006

In a far-reaching review of how Montgomery guides growth, county planners have developed a draft document that promotes higher-density development around mass transit. Some of this urban-style redevelopment would occur in areas with Metro stops, such as Glenmont, Wheaton and White Flint.

The "visioning effort," the initial stage of a process that could last several years, includes community roundtables involving neighborhood and business leaders. Pamela Lindstrom, of Gaithersburg, a civic activist and member of the local Sierra Club, is involved in the process. She writes about how she thinks the public should be involved.

Montgomery County is fast using up the land planned for suburban-style development. The only way growth can continue is redevelopment and infill. Planners by instinct look ahead; they realized that their trade in the 21st century would be far different than in the past. Construction projects will be surrounded by existing businesses and residences. Folks in the vicinity could try to stop such development. Yet there are good public interest reasons that well-ordered growth should continue.

So Montgomery County is trying to plan its future like Arlington did in the 1970s, by developing a growth plan that is principled, that is, intended to fulfill the public interest, and that gains agreement from the public (not necessarily the same thing).

The project is called, with inevitable ostentation, "Montgomery in the 21st Century." It will comprise three community roundtable discussions and several public opinion surveys leading to recommendations on new approaches to planning. The goal is sweeping: Counties have more power over growth than is generally realized. By use of its land use and zoning authority, the county can allow commercial growth to continue, or slow it down, or change the type and pattern of growth. These are the choices to be presented to the public.

The Planning Board is recommending that growth focus on transforming some older shopping areas into mixed-use centers and arterial roads into boulevards, undertaking the sort of urban transition that occurred in Arlington. This transformation would have many benefits. Many more people would have the opportunity to live in situations in which they could be independent of cars and the unstable energy market. They could live, in short, sustainably, in a century when sustainability will become a preoccupation for the masses, not just the green fringe (like me).

The urbanized centers would benefit not just their inhabitants, but also the people who live in the traditional suburban neighborhoods around them. We would be able to access many of our needs by foot or bicycle. More of us would have access to good public transport. Children could walk to school again!

This is the enthusiasts' vision. But for some residents, the urbanizing of centers and boulevards just means another opportunity for profit by politically active developers and zoning attorneys. To win public trust, officials need to give the planning process back to the public, learning the lesson of Arlington. Officials developed plans for the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor with intense public input. At public meetings the residents voted on how much development to allow around each transit station. Far from precluding development, the residents legitimized it and even allowed it to occur.

That is the path on which Montgomery is starting as we plan our own urban transition. Obviously, we are much bigger and more varied than Arlington. The lesson to be learned is not one of density, but one of process, and of result: Arlington's urban transition has lived up to expectations on many levels. It is generally supported by the populace even while it is highly profitable to developers.

Montgomery's goal for its community discussion should be the same. Agreement (or disagreement) is sought from the 160 or so residents and businesspeople working on a vision and implementation strategy that includes which centers should be redeveloped first, and what the overall parameters of size, activity, density and access should be.

Unfortunately, the two remaining roundtables are probably filled (though you should inquire). We in the county's civic groups have requested that the process include a countywide public opinion survey that gives residents at large the same choices as those offered to participants in the roundtables.

Another observation about Arlington: Lots of people know about the plans and have confidence that plans will be implemented as they expect, that urban centers will expand so much and no more, that benefits will be produced as planned.

With elections approaching, Montgomery residents still have the impression of public plans falling prey to the cozy relationship between officials and the development industry. Replacing that relationship with one between officials and the public seems a distant dream.

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