Slow Going on Montgomery Growth Rules

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Montgomery County officials, who promised to strengthen the county's limits on growth while leaving room for new development, are mired in a dispute over how to rewrite the rules.

Many County Council members who touted slower growth during last year's elections said they are dissatisfied with key sections of the county Planning Board's 300-page blueprint and expect to debate its proposals well into the fall, rather than finish this month.

The proposals are intended to encourage better urban and suburban design that creates neighborhoods and streets more inviting to pedestrians, cyclists and those who choose to use public transportation. And they urge the council to double the taxes that builders pay for schools and triple those paid for transportation. Home buyers would see a 45 percent increase in the recordation tax they pay.

The steeper taxes proposed for developers and home buyers strike some council members as burdensome. A new way of calculating road congestion based on the availability of public transit could depend too heavily on the willingness of commuters to ditch their cars, others say. And a new formula for school crowding, requiring developers to pay more when a school is at least 10 percent over capacity, has officials divided over when the new fees should kick in.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has weighed in, saying the proposed tax increases on the building industry are excessive and urging the council to reject any tax increase on people buying homes.

"I don't think there is consensus on much of anything at this point," said County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), a former Planning Board member and one of the few council members who backed a 2003 move to ease restrictions on development.

The growth policy, which is revised every two years, helps determine how many new homes and commercial projects can be built. Those decisions are tied directly to the availability of roads, schools and transit and are based on complex calculations that can take months to do. Most council members, said the council president, Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), believe the system, which underwent major changes four years ago, isn't working.

"We have insufficient current infrastructure and insufficient planning for the future," she said.

As for schools, which many believe are crucial to the county's economic well-being, the Planning Board proposes tweaking the definition of overcrowded so that impact taxes on new development kick in sooner. Leggett said the taxes should kick in even sooner. The council hasn't decided what it wants.

"I am open to doing things differently," Praisner said. "I want folks to feel comfortable with the process and understand what the implications are."

This year, after a failed bid by Praisner to impose a moratorium on development, the council asked the Planning Board to speed up its biennial review of the growth policy. Praisner had hoped a moratorium would give officials time to rethink the policy and avoid a rush by developers and builders before new rules took effect.

Praisner said she is confident that by November, when the current growth policy expires, a majority of the council will have agreed on the details to ensure that roads, schools and transit more closely match the needs of the growing county. Montgomery's population, nearing 1 million, is expected to grow by 25 percent in the next 25 years.

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