Planner's First Test Coming Today

Royce Hanson, shown last year after becoming head of Montgomery County's planning board, will put his growth plan before the County Council. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Royce Hanson, the nationally known planning expert who left a comfortable university post to join Montgomery County's divisive debate over growth, today faces his first major political test since taking charge of the county's planning agency a little more than a year ago.

With the County Council poised today for a series of test votes on proposed changes to the county's growth policy, Hanson, 76, and fellow planning board members should get a better sense of lawmakers' support for what the board believes is a more effective way to balance environmental protection and "smart growth," on one side, against expected development pressures.

The debate is a pivotal one for Montgomery, one of the nation's most affluent counties. As it becomes more economically and ethnically diverse and demand rises for moderately priced housing and more classrooms, officials also predict an influx of high earners from the planned expansion of the naval hospital in Bethesda and other employment growth.

The growth policy, required by law for more than 20 years, establishes standards for what can be built when and where. The underlying concept is to promote ways to make newcomers and new development pay for their impact and slow down the pace when services are overburdened.

The planning board also wants the policy to spawn development in older areas by creating "sustainable" design, more reliance on public transit and denser urban communities.

But the proposals, principally authored by Hanson with the board's support, have encountered skeptics in civic associations and the development industry, as well as the council, whose members have the last word.

Last year, while still at a George Washington University think tank, Hanson wrote a series of papers at the council's behest explaining how Montgomery's planning agency, under fire for lax oversight of development, could do a better job. He was then hired to undertake the task and almost immediately had to tackle the growth policy.

Hanson first presided over the planning board in the 1970s, when it successfully set up the county's agricultural preserve, where development is limited.

Twice an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. House, a lawyer and a trained planner, Hanson is a well-regarded national intellectual force on planning and development.

The Oklahoma native is prone to folksy aphorisms -- "the first rule of holes is when you find yourself in one, stop digging" -- but in the next sentence can speak about dense policy in ways that are difficult to understand.

In some instances, he has done little to mask his frustration. When Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) repeatedly challenged the planning board's proposed test for measuring traffic, Hanson told him bluntly, "Then don't adopt it."

"That's not constructive," responded Elrich, 57, a former elementary school teacher.

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