Montgomery's new growth plan pushes car-free living

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Montgomery County redefined the way it will grow in the next two decades when lawmakers endorsed a plan Tuesday that encourages development where residents can easily live a car-free lifestyle.

The County Council, after weeks of intense debate over the county's growth policy, unanimously agreed to give developers discounts to build dense developments near transit stations as long as they also construct bike paths and walkways, put shops and other amenities nearby, and use environmentally friendly construction methods.

Most suburban growth plans -- including Montgomery's, until Tuesday -- discourage development in congested areas, including those near public transit, and encourage construction in more sparsely populated communities, on the theory that new developments should arise where traffic is still tolerable.

But Montgomery's new plan takes a different tack, one that smart-growth advocates say is long overdue. With the population nearing 1 million, the Washington suburb is substantially larger than the big city to its south but is still managing growth as if everyone can hop in a car and quickly get where they want to go.

The county's growth policy is revisited every two years. The new plan could boost efforts to redevelop the jumbled White Flint area along Rockville Pike and provide new impetus to build a "science city" spearheaded by Johns Hopkins University west of Interstate 270 near Gaithersburg.

Montgomery is shifting direction at a time when jurisdictions across the Washington area are beginning to embrace transit-oriented development. Fairfax County is planning to remake Tysons Corner, and Prince George's County is proposing to redevelop the area around New Carrollton Station.

Montgomery's new growth policy will also give the county an opportunity to improve its bus system and encourage more people to take the bus or subway. It retains a cap on growth when schools get too crowded, a measure that has led to a building moratorium in Bethesda, Clarksburg and part of Germantown. The council hopes to lift that moratorium soon by approving extra funds to build more classrooms.

The council also endorsed a plan from County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), whose district is likely to be the epicenter of much of the urban-style growth, to use development fees to improve a transit system that commuters say is increasingly inadequate.

The county Planning Board, whose proposal the council was debating, had been willing to forgo many of the fees. But the council decided it should still collect them, even for developments near Metro stations, and steer the money toward improving public transit.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who supported much of what was approved Tuesday, has proposed studying the feasibility of a countywide bus rapid-transit system being pushed by council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large).

On one key issue, determining how much traffic is too much, Leggett and the council decided to ignore the Planning Board's formula and try to develop a new one in the next several months. Leggett and some council members said the board was willing to tolerate more road congestion than the politicians. Leggett has hired a consultant to come up with a new formula for establishing tolerable levels of congestion while allowing for development.

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson said that more road congestion is inevitable but that alternatives such as bus rapid transit could help take cars off the road.

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