Love-It-or-Hate-It Building Moratorium Draws Crowd at Hearing

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An initiative by the Montgomery County Council president to suspend dozens of new building projects was portrayed at a standing-room-only hearing last night as either critical to strengthening the county's land-use policies or a scourge on the county's business climate.

The moratorium proposal by President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) would give the council time to consider rewriting Montgomery's approach to controlling development. Praisner is part of an emerging majority elected to the council in November that supports tougher growth standards as a way to address voters' frustration with traffic and crowded schools.

Newly elected County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who emphasized in his inauguration speech that he plans to respond to voters' "crystal-clear" desire to slow growth, is generally supportive of the eight-month moratorium. Lisa Rother, his policy adviser, told the council last night that the measure represents a "positive step towards directing growth" and a "reasonable approach." But she added that there should be flexibility to allow certain projects to go forward.

Speakers who signed a long list to be heard asked the council to consider making exceptions for developers of affordable housing, churches and projects that have been through the Planning Board's preliminary review process.

As many as 288 affordable housing units, for instance, could be delayed by the moratorium.

"We simply cannot afford to do something that is going to exacerbate what is already in dire shortage," said Michael Kator of the Housing Opportunities Commission.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) pressed one group of supporters: "If this is such a great idea, why is it necessary to have so many exemptions?"

The moratorium would last through August and apply to more than 5,000 residential units and at least 2 million square feet of nonresidential projects. Small-scale projects and those surrounding Metro stations would not be covered by the moratorium.

Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) asked Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson: "Is this moratorium a good idea?"

"I do not think so," Hanson said, urging the council to "explore better ways to achieve what you have in mind."

The moratorium is intended to ensure that any new stringent land-use policies the council adopts apply to as many projects as possible. Praisner wants to prevent a rush of developers from trying to win approval for their projects before the new rules take effect.

Planning Board member Wendy Perdue suggested in a letter to the council that members could instead pass a resolution that would put developers on notice that any changes would apply to projects filed after Dec. 5, 2006, the day Praisner introduced the moratorium measure.

Civic activists applauded Praisner's proposal. "Let's not worry about a lapse in economic vitality," said Jim Humphrey of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. "If you want to stop the flow, you better turn off the spigot."

Gus Bauman, speaking on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, was among the opponents who said it was unfair to change the rules for developers who have long been in the queue. The moratorium "has no compelling public purpose served," but "the negative image sent to the investment world," he said, "would be extraordinary."

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