Montgomery Urged to Revisit Watershed Development Plans

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Montgomery County should reconsider a proposed $85 million bus depot and delay approval of 1,600 houses near the fragile Ten Mile Creek watershed to see whether more can be done to protect the creek while still allowing development, county planners and environmental officials say in a report to be discussed today.

Among the possible solutions that a proposed two-year study would examine are "more stringent controls, decreasing development, or a different type of development," said Mark Pfefferle, who oversees the county planning agency's environmental staff.

The report to the county Planning Board comes with a warning that officials underestimated the effect of development on the environment when they wrote the 1994 master plan for Clarksburg. That plan led to a building boom in the northern Montgomery watershed, which is a source of drinking water.

Guided by the master plan, the county built a jail in the area and authorized creation of a community of as many as 14,000 homes around Clarksburg. Most of those homes have not been built, but they have been approved and would be allowed under the new proposal. However, owners of two large properties, who are interested in building up to 1,600 additional houses in the area, could have their plans delayed by the reevaluation. Jim Soltesz, an engineer who represents the two landowners, could not be reached for comment.

Preserving Ten Mile Creek has long been a goal of county officials, who say it must be protected from nearby development. The waterway is about a mile from Interstate 270, but it has the feel of a rural stream. Water from the creek flows into a reservoir and eventually into the Potomac River, a regional source of drinking water.

A county study published in January said that runoff from development in Clarksburg was damaging the creek and that there is no sure way to reverse the damage.

To allow more development soon, the new report to the Planning Board says, would "pose a threat to the health of Ten Mile Creek, even with improvements in stormwater management techniques."

More construction "will put enormous pressure on the headwaters and affect the whole length of the steam. . . . Even small changes have resulted in degradation," the proposal states.

If the Planning Board and the County Council go along with the recommendation for more study, public officials will be able to defer major decisions on further development of the watershed until after the 2010 elections.

The debate over the watershed highlights a challenge often faced by local governments as they try to balance competing environmental goals. Montgomery officials want to encourage use of mass transit but say that to do so, they need to find a place to house 250 Ride On buses and heavy equipment. At the same time, they are required by federal, state and local laws to protect drinking water and natural habitat.

"We feel that there is still a question whether the water quality of Ten Mile Creek can be protected. The only way to determine that is to take a harder look," said Robert Hoyt, the county's director of environmental protection.

Hoyt and Mary Dolan, an environmental supervisor in the county's planning agency, headed the task force that came up with the proposal to be discussed by the Planning Board today.

David Dise, Montgomery's director of general services, said finding another suitable site for the bus depot will be difficult. "We don't want a bunch of transit buses going home by neighborhood streets," said Dise, who like Hoyt is a member of the cabinet of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

The General Services Department is beginning a search for other possible depot sites and, at the same time, intends to document environmental conditions at the currently designated site in case it is the eventual choice, Dise said.

The reevaluation of overall development in the area would require the County Council to add $1 million to the planning agency's $100 million budget, the proposal says.

Diane Cameron, a lobbyist for the Audubon Naturalist Society who has long pressured the county for tougher controls on runoff that pollutes area waterways, said she hopes officials will seriously consider limits on development in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

"Storm water management alone cannot protect high-quality streams. The key is to limit impervious surface and to protect the majority of forests and open space," Cameron said.

Rollin Stanley, the county's planning director, said he is interested in finding environmentally friendly ways to build. "We want to understand if we can develop smarter, and deal with storm water in different ways," he said.

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