Members of the Montgomery County Civic Federation charged recently that a proposed new growth policy for the county would permit a significant increase in traffic congestion at key intersections and be little help in controlling development.
The plan now before the County Council is detailed in a county planning board report known as the Comprehensive Staging Plan. It would use levels of traffic congestion to determine when and where new development would be permitted.
The plan was the subject of a panel discussion among members of the County Council and the federation.
"We have serious objections to their basing the whole thing on roads," said Pamela T. Lindstrom, chairman of the federation's planning and use committee. "We wanted a real growth management plan based on all the techniques one can use to manage growth -- roads, sewage, zoning -- there are others."
Royce Hanson, chairman of the planning board and panel participant, said the plan only augments other controls the county already uses to govern development. He said growth is still based on the county master plan, which stipulates the areas best for development. In addition, he said, growth is controlled by the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which requires developers to show that public facilities in place or planned for their development area will accommodate the new demand.
"It is a mechanism for timing growth," Hanson said. "Once you determine sewer is available then transportation becomes the next critical facility and there are fewer other public facilities that are required for growth to occur."
The new plan sets upper limits -- called thresholds -- of traffic congestion permitted at key intersections. The limits are higher than those now considered acceptable, according to federation members.
At intersections with "level d" traffic, currently considered the upper limit, motorists can expect to move through the intersection with only one stop. The plan raises the acceptable level to "level e," where motorists must wait through more than one complete red light in rush hour. The plan and the thresholds, if approved, would be revised every two years.
Hanson said the intersection of 1-270 and Shady Grove Road is currently heavily congested. Under the existing ordinance, he said, the county would soon begin to disapprove new development there.
"Under the new approach, we would still have some capacity for that area because instead of looking at the immediate intersection we are looking at the larger area around it," Hanson said after the meeting.
Hanson said traffic increases around a new Metro stop as motorists arrive to use public transportation. But "it doesn't make any sense to say you can't develop there," he said. "Under the existing ordinance that's what we'd (be forced to) say."
"There's no indication of the effect. Favorable or unfavorable effects are not spelled out in the plan," said John Jordan, a member of the federation planning and land use committee. "Level D should be restored," he said.
County Council President Scott Fosler appeared to favor the plan. "We do have the possibility of coming up with a new tool for planning in the county and for implementation of the plan which could be a plus," he told about 45 civic federation delegates attending the discussion.
Under the plan, once traffic on county roads reaches the designated threshold, the County Council will be required to determine whether growth should stop or whether roads should be improved to permit more development.
"The staging of growth to public facilities' adequacy seems to have limitations," said a man in the audience. "It seems to me that we should be considering the threshold of the taxpayers' ability to pay for the public facilities."
"I don't see any concern about the threshold of acceptance of residents affected and the people who are already here," said Martha Mohler, chairman of the federation's sanitation committee.
Federation President Elvera Berson said that while the federation "has many doubts" about the staging plan, it would support a proposal made in November by County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist to appoint a citizens advisory committee to review the plan.
Foster said later that if the council decides to appoint a citizens advisory board, then adoption of the plan will be delayed. If it does not appoint a board, he said, a decision on the plan could be reached as early as March.