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.
Hanson also tangled with Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), herself a similarly wonkish budget and policy expert, who said she doubts Hanson anticipated so much scrutiny of the proposal, since he rose in county politics decades ago at what Praisner described as "a different time."
"It is good and healthy for policymakers to have tough questions. . . . Respectfully, I don't think Royce was familiar with that," she said.
The first major disagreement on the growth policy came this year when Praisner, 65, proposed a temporary construction moratorium to allow planners and lawmakers time to work out a plan.
A foe of blanket bans on new construction, Hanson refused to endorse Praisner's proposal, which also encountered well-organized opposition from builders and developers.
Praisner then asked the planning board to speed up its work on the growth policy, but disagreements over the board's first proposal in May led to months of rewriting and delay. The council may be hard-pressed to come up with something new before the current growth policy expires in mid-November.
Some County Council members say they still can't see their way through the thicket of documents. With only a month left in her one-year term as council leader, Praisner has scheduled final votes for Nov. 6, but County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) asked members last week to delay any major changes, particularly in transportation rules, for several months.
Hanson and the board have had some success in selling their ideas to the council. Last week, they won preliminary support for proposals to force new development to pay more for roads, transit and classrooms, while also trying to find a way to tap purchasers of existing homes for the costs of new students in the schools.
Two council committees endorsed raising "impact taxes" on new development and asking developers to provide buses, improve roads, and take other steps to mitigate traffic.
Hanson also has won support to begin a review of parking policy that could limit spaces and push residents of new developments to use transit more often. The committees also approved asking developers to pay more to help schools absorb new students.
But one particularly divisive issue remains: What is the best way to judge the traffic and transportation impact of new and existing developments?
Some council members, such as at-large Democrats George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen, who four years ago were part of the "End Gridlock" group that eased restrictions on growth, say they fear the planning board's proposals do little to address the county's need for affordable housing. That concern is also expressed by council newcomer Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring). Along with former End Gridlock member Mike Knapp (D-Upcounty), they might form a key voting bloc on the nine-member council.
Hanson said last week he bears some of the responsibility for members' concerns, though the speedup hadn't helped, and for now is "not confident enough to make any predictions" about today's council votes.
"I think we made a common error of agencies that deal with technical material,'' he said. "We tend to assume sometimes that others who have a lot of important things to do will be as familiar with some of the things as we are."