Montgomery planner's 'smart growth' plan faces hurdles

By Miranda S. Spivack
Thursday, October 22, 2009

As Montgomery County's population nears 1 million and the recession shows few signs of abating, county officials are casting about for ways to keep the treasury strong. Almost everyone endorses two big fixes: Attract more high-paying jobs, and make it easier for residents to live near their work.

The challenge is where to put everyone.

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, a nationally known thinker about growth and planning and the father of the county's 93,000-acre agricultural reserve, says he can meet the challenge even though Montgomery is almost out of vacant land for development.

Much of what is available for development is lucrative shopping centers that could be converted into small villages as long as there are incentives to idle the properties while construction takes place, Hanson said.

He proposes changing the county's Annual Growth Policy, which is updated every two years, to make development easier in areas where growth policy now discourages it because of congestion. His plan, under debate by the County Council, would reward developers who build near transit and create walkable, bikeable communities by giving them discounts and allowing them to avoid the usual requirements to fix congested roads nearby or make improvements so their developments don't add to traffic.

If the proposal is adopted by the County Council, Montgomery would be in the vanguard of communities in the Washington area to try to apply urban solutions to suburban problems.

"Knowing that the population and tastes are changing in terms of what people want in living style, we think it makes a lot of sense to move from a system that has been historically based on what you can't do, based on capacity of mainly roads, to a system that focuses on what you ought to do and where you ought to do it," Hanson said one recent day as he prepared for another marathon session with the County Council committee reviewing the Annual Growth Policy.

The council must make any changes by Nov. 15, or the existing policy will remain in effect.

To many, such "smart growth" makes sense. And some smart growth advocates say Hanson's plans don't go far enough.

"They are tinkering," said Ben Ross, who heads the Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group.

But some residents and political leaders say the proposal is unrealistic in a county where most Metro stations are more than a mile apart, residents rely on their cars for commuting and doing errands even if they would prefer not to, and government is short of funds to upgrade or expand the transit system.

"For the foreseeable future, most people in Montgomery County will continue to drive," said County Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville). "I believe it is a critical measure of the quality of life, and it is a crucial one for many of our residents."

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