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Montgomery draws a car-free blueprint for growth
Council backs plan that pushes development near transit stations

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.

"I think that is where ultimately things have to go," Hanson said, referring to building more transit. "What is painful is to tell people that, yes, in a county of a million people, traffic is likely to be slower."

Montgomery has little buildable land, and what is available for redevelopment are lucrative strip malls and large parking lots that would have to be razed.

Planners predict that 200,000 people are likely to move to the county in the next 20 years, bumping the population to more than 1 million. To find a way to house the expected newcomers and get them to and from work, the Planning Board had recommended that developers get discounts and rewards if they are willing to idle their properties for a few years and to build denser development and taller buildings, up to 300 feet in some areas, near the county's Metro stations.

The Planning Board has also tried to make improving transit an ironclad condition of much new development.

When the board approved the proposed science city in July, members were adamant that it could not be built unless the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway bus or rail system is funded and built. Funding transit, however, is up to federal, state and local lawmakers, all of whom are struggling with massive budget shortfalls, so the Planning Board can advocate for but not create it.

Although the council did not endorse all of the Planning Board's ideas, Hanson pronounced himself satisfied.

"I think we got the conversation going in the right direction," he said.

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