Outgoing Montgomery planning chairman dramatically shifted county's path

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

If Royce Hanson could rewind to 2006, when he left a comfortable academic post to resuscitate Montgomery County's parks and planning agency, he would probably say thanks, but no thanks.

"I had operated under what turns out to be a false assumption: that the planning board is the principal adviser to the County Council on planning matters. It turns out that in many cases, the board is given no more credit . . . than somebody who walks in off the street.

"Had I known . . . I probably would not have come back under any circumstances," said Hanson, 78, whose term ended last week. Nationally recognized for innovative thinking about planning, Hanson was embraced by the council to lead the county out of the thicket of Clarksburg, a roiling controversy in 2006 that had become synonymous with lax oversight of development.

It was Hanson's second tour of duty; he had chaired the board more than 30 years earlier, when he led the effort to protect 93,000 agricultural acres in the county as a development-free zone and helped formulate the law that allows growth if there are enough schools and roads to support it.

Taking the helm again, Hanson put in place a final design for the urbanizing suburb, creating a vision for revamping Rockville Pike into an urban center and leading efforts to create a biosciences community near Gaithersburg. He also tightened environmental enforcement -- although not enough, in the eyes of many local environmentalists -- and stepped up oversight of construction violations. He launched a major rewrite of the county's complicated zoning law and tried to weather substantial budget cuts.

In many ways, Hanson has helped Montgomery rethink the way it manages growth. "There is more focus on what the outcome is and whether that is good for us as a community. He has helped foster that," said Patrick O'Neill, a development lawyer and president of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

Jim Humphrey, a land-use expert for Montgomery's County Civic Federation, said he thinks that Hanson had done much to improve enforcement after Clarksburg but still worries that developers have the upper hand.

"The planning department has still been allowed to act more as a partner with developers than keeping true to approved visions for communities," he said.

Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) also praised Hanson for his post-Clarksburg improvements.

"He said, 'The buck stops here, and we are going to do things differently,' and he did." But Elrich said that Hanson and his top lieutenant, Rollin Stanley, who is also widely regarded as a creative thinker about planning, too often ignored other viewpoints, especially on matters of traffic and density.

"The question should be, 'How can I allow more growth without wrecking the place?' " Elrich said.

'Natural tensions'

With such a bulging résumé, Hanson should feel some satisfaction. But his tenure has been bittersweet, his dealings with elected officials a major reason for his frustrations. Too often, he said, he has bumped into what he thinks is a "concerted effort" by politicians to diminish the planning agency's role and wrest control from the semiautonomous five-member planning board.

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