Correction to This Article
This article mischaracterized the position of Ben Ross, vice president of the Montgomery County branch of Action Committee for Transit, on the county growth policy. Ross says he is concerned that the policy prohibits development near crowded roads even when it would be near good public transit.

New Montgomery Growth Policy Formalizes Focus on Public Transit

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

Montgomery County's new growth policy is likely to steer the next phase of the county's development into already urbanizing areas because for the first time it allows planners to consider public transportation when deciding where to allow development.

The new rules, which the County Council approved 7 to 1 last week, will toughen standards regarding how many cars can spill onto the roads from new developments and how many new students cause schools to be deemed too crowded. But if the projects are built near public transportation, developers might be able to avoid some penalties and even move their projects to the head of the line for approval.

That was a key idea pushed by Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, who wrote much of the policy. Hanson has long advocated efforts to get people out of cars in order to reduce air pollution and traffic jams while allowing new development.

Many details remain to be worked out, and the council didn't go as far as Hanson recommended on public transit because members questioned whether his formula would deliver what it promised. But the policy formally begins to take the county in a new direction. The policy had not previously compelled county agencies to examine the availability of buses, subways and commuter trains when evaluating what can go where.

"Most of our new development is going to be relatively high density" near public transportation, Hanson predicted. He pointed to Bethesda, Silver Spring and Wheaton as well as along Rockville Pike as prime areas for development.

In the next 20 years, Montgomery faces several challenges as it tries to absorb the expected arrival of thousands of new residents and jobs already approved and plans for the proposed expansion of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. And the open land available for development is almost used up.

Under the new growth rules, taxes on new construction will increase from 70 to 125 percent, depending on the type and location. The increases are causing anxiety among developers at a time when the real estate market and the economy are slowing.

Mike Smith, a vice president of Lcor, which is planning a residential, retail and office project at the White Flint Metro station, said tax increases might cause some developers to rethink projects.

"It is the cost of doing business and an expense our tenants typically have to bear. It does push rental rates higher and make things less affordable," he said. "It does send a difficult signal for those of us who want to create new communities."

Lcor officials might already have seen the future, when it comes to building near public transit.

The company has spent the past 10 years on the proposed development near the White Flint Station, hoping to convert strip shopping centers into a walkable town center. Its proposal to cut car travel for 55 years helped it win development rights in the neighborhood even though county rules in effect at the time had deemed nearby roads too crowded to allow more building.

Its current plans include fewer parking spaces than usual, running a shuttle bus within the complex to get people to offices and stores without their cars, and extolling through a public campaign the benefits of biking, walking and Metro use.

If the White Flint project works as Smith envisions, it could be the first of what Hanson said he hopes will be several new "transit-oriented" town centers along Rockville Pike, a jumble of strip malls and indistinct high- and low-rise dwellings with few amenities within walking distance. Other developers are eyeing Rockville Pike, and the planning staff is reworking the master plan for the neighborhood near White Flint Mall and one subway stop north of the county's Strathmore concert hall.

To figure out how to cut back on cars, Lcor examined plans used by other developers, including a program at the nearby Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC, along with a developer, entered into an agreement with Montgomery in the early 1990s to cut down on parking and auto commuters at its White Flint offices in exchange for the right to build more office space.

The NRC, like many federal agencies, encourages flexible work schedules that bring in commuters at different times of day, subsidizes Metro fares and limits the number of parking spaces.

Although the 10-year agreement with Montgomery expired in 2004, agency spokeswoman Holly Harrington said the NRC has continued to try to be a "good neighbor" in Montgomery and keep its transit-oriented policies in place. Nearly 1,000 employees, about a third of those working at White Flint, collect the subsidized Metro passes every month.

"We are still doing most of the things that were in the agreement with the county," Harrington said, a decision that might prove to have been prescient, given the new growth policy's emphasis.

The policy will impose even tougher standards than those Lcor and the NRC adopted. And the planning agency soon will conduct a study to revisit county rules to see whether there are ways to further limit the number of parking spaces a development must have.

Whether the changes approved will do enough to foster "smart growth" remains a matter of debate.

Ben Ross, vice president of the Montgomery branch of Action Committee for Transit, which has 1,000 members, said that although the new growth policy helps promote transit use, he worries that it still won't encourage clustering housing and jobs closer to buses and the subway. In some cases, it could inadvertently have the opposite effect, he said.

"My concern is that they are still sticking to the basic idea that you can't build" when roads are too crowded unless there also is good transit nearby, he said.

That could backfire, he said, in such far-flung areas as Damascus and Poolesville, which "have really lousy transit" but under the new rules would be able to absorb new construction because traffic hasn't hit the tipping point. That could lead to more sprawl, he said.

"The key development issue is getting more housing near Metro," he said. "If you build residential development in close, walking distance to Metro, people are going to use it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company