Montgomery Leaders Ease Strategy on Growth

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

Elected leaders in Montgomery County have backed away from a politically charged proposal to temporarily freeze dozens of development projects but said yesterday that they remain committed to tightening controls on growth that has led to crowded roads and schools.

The change in strategy comes in the face of intense opposition from business representatives, who argued that a moratorium would harm projects in which they have invested time and money and signal that Montgomery was hostile to development.

Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said in interviews yesterday that the proposal had been misinterpreted. But they agreed that the county could achieve similar goals without a moratorium.

"Folks got themselves tied up in the 'M-word,' and I would just as soon not have them tied in knots over something that it wasn't," Praisner said. "There are lots of way to skin the cat."

Yesterday, council aides were drafting an alternative for consideration at Tuesday's meeting that would effectively turn the proposed eight-month timeout into an FYI notice. Builders whose preliminary plans were filed after Jan. 1 would be put on notice that tougher development rules could apply to their projects as soon as this summer. Among other things, those developers might be required to pay higher impact fees for schools and roads affected by their projects.

Leggett said he would support the scaled-back measure, which he called a "better way" to prevent developers from trying to win approval of their projects before more-stringent rules take effect.

Development industry officials expressed guarded optimism about the alternative plan.

Anne C. Martin, an attorney for the District-based Central Union Mission, which is working on a plan to sell 80 acres in Olney for housing, said she was pleased that the council appeared ready to drop what her client considered the most-troubling provision.

But she added, "I'm waiting until Tuesday's meeting before breathing a sigh of relief."

The changes also appeared to appease several council members who were uneasy about stalling projects that had lined up for Planning Board approval under the county's current growth policy.

Strengthening controls on development is at the top of the agenda for Leggett and a new majority on the council elected in November. Leggett campaigned to revamp Montgomery's growth policy, and he said yesterday that the county has shifted too much of the cost of building roads and schools in recent years from developers to taxpayers.

But Praisner's moratorium proposal raised questions about projects that had been in the works for several years and spurred opposition from developers, who said it was unfair to change the rules in midcourse.

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