For more than two decades, Norman Lee Christeller has been in the thick of land-use debates that have made and broken the careers of more Montgomery County politicians than he cares to count.
In the mid-1960s, when open housing was little more than an ideal debated in county living rooms, Christeller, a liberal church activist, helped finagle federal money to rebuild a poor black community on the outskirts of Potomac. In 1976, as County Council president involved in an otherwise routine road project, he was the victim of a telephone threat after the caller had sown his driveway with about 200 roofing tacks.
The times are no less demanding today on Christeller, 62, who, as chairman of the county's planning board, holds virtual veto power over projects as grand as multimillion-dollar, high-techonology centers and as pedestrian as what color brick to use in a sidewalk.
In one sense, these are glory days for Christeller. His political patrons on the County Council are poised to reappoint him within three weeks to the planning post, renewing his four-year lease on a pulpit that is second in prominence only to that of his frequent rival, County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist. On Tuesday, they plan to give him a $10,000 raise, bringing his annual salary to $74,000.
But this also is a grim season, largely because of a mounting chorus of criticism against the planning system that Christeller controls and a new effort, led by Gilchrist, to strip Christeller's office of its cherished prerogatives in managing development.
Civic leaders, developers and politicians -- many of them longtime foes of Christeller -- are throwing common complaints at his doorstep: roads are impassable during rush hour, the children's education is being hampered by overcrowded schools and the quality of life that gives Montgomery bragging rights over other parts of the country is deteriorating.
"It's not so much a feeling of outrage as it is resignation," said Marilyn Piety, a Silver Spring civic leader who advocates stricter controls on growth than Christeller. She opposed his appointment to the planning board in 1981 and does so again this year.
"You have to give Christeller his due: He has power," Piety said. "He uses it graciously when he can and blatantly when he has to. But we don't understand each other. We don't come together."
Christeller draws his power from three sources: an unusually close relationship with the four-member majority of the County Council; the planning board's legal authority to approve subdivision, site and master development plans, and his own skill as an advocate.
"Much of what we do is based on the power of persuasion, convincing people of the validity of our position," Christeller said. "I have a fair amount of influence on the people who wanted me to be chairman of the planning board."
Indeed, as a longtime Democrat who was a contributor and adviser to the political campaigns of members Esther P. Gelman, Michael L. Gudis, William E. Hanna Jr. and David L. Scull, Christeller has an entree to the council enjoyed by no other local official.
"If he didn't have those consistent four votes, Christeller couldn't be Christeller," Piety said. "Why should we start a controversy, when the votes are there to support him?"
To be fair, Piety's lament is an old one in Montgomery, a county of 600,000 where public debate over land use and zoning may as well be the unofficial religion. Nor is Christeller entirely to blame; some of today's problems -- highway congestion and crowded classrooms -- have their roots in decisions made 15 years ago and in demographic trends no official can control.
Nonetheless, a growing number of people want to hold Christeller accountable for the sins of the past and the perceived errors of the present. He is caught between private builders, who have been told to provide roads and other "public" services in order to get their housing developments approved, and homeowners who want him to curb the expansion that has made Montgomery one of the fastest-growing jurisdictions in the region.
For the most part, Christeller's thinking on development has been guided by a philosophy of "wedges and corridors," planned growth on north-south spines such as I-270, Rte. 29 and Metro subway routes that are separated by wide swatches of green space. Despite such plans, Christeller now finds himself trying to put out the brush fires of overdevelopment, the natural result of Montgomery County's maturing from a rural suburb to a slice of megalopolis.
"We're never going back to the good old days, in terms of traffic," Christeller said in a recent interview. "We're much more urbanized. We're going to live with a certain amount of congestion. As for schools, the important thing is . . . not to make the mistakes we made in Silver Spring and Bethesda and overbuild the new ones."
The hot seat of planning board chairman is a perfectly comfortable place for Christeller, an overweight, bearded lawyer with a notoriously short temper and an ego about the size of his spacious corner office in Silver Spring.
He can sputter with rage at a crowd of several hundred people or gently stroke the fragile egos of local politicians. He is a walking encyclopedia of Montgomery history. When telling a particularly juicy story, he is apt to punctuate it with salty language and traces of his native West Virginia twang.
The public may be divided over Christeller, but one thing is certain. With Christeller at the helm, the planning board has become a third branch of government, on equal and sometimes better footing than either Gilchrist or the council.
"The executive has been emasculated by Norman," said John J. Delaney, a founding partner of Linowes & Blocher, the premier land-use law firm in the county. Delaney, who has known Christeller for 10 years, added: "Norman has a greater share of the regulatory pie."
The debate in 1983-84 over a proposed Inter-County Connector highway between Montgomery and Prince George's showed how Christeller worked with his council allies against Gilchrist, who favored a far less ambitious east-west road.
In November 1983, when Gilchrist held a news conference in Rockville to announce his alternative, Christeller showed up, listened to the executive and promptly derided the proposal to a reporter as "a disaster, like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg."
Christeller staunchly defended the $250 million connecting highway as one way to ease congestion on the Capital Beltway and quickly marshaled enough votes on the council to endorse the more ambitious project, which the council did five days later by a vote of 4 to 0.
The debate ended inconclusively last October when state and county officials agreed to construction of part of the Inter-County Connecter. Christeller still criticizes Gilchrist's handling of the controversy.
"Charlie took the lead in opposing something that had been on the boards 25, 30 years, because one of his staff members said there are a lot of citizens out there who don't like it," Christeller said. "I would have built some of the roads before the citizen opposition developed."
A large part of Christeller's job is trying to manage the increasing pressure to exploit those large chunks of open space that are outside the bounds of a developed corridor. Christeller, like Gilchrist, was instrumental in approving a plan to construct more than 800 homes and a championship golf course on the 1,000-acre Avenel tract in Potomac. Nearby residents filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court to block the project; a decision in the case is expected within days.
Residents elsewhere in the county repeatedly have challenged projects endorsed by Christeller and the planning board, turning out to oppose the board's support for a proposed quarry in Boyds, the conversion of neighborhood schools to apartments and the intense development slated for the area west of Rockville and Gaithersburg.
In Silver Spring, whose depressed downtown core Christeller envisions as a hub of medium-priced shops and specialty stores, residents attacked the planning board for not supporting their five-year effort to save the Falkland Apartments from redevelopment.
There again, Christeller served the council by absorbing the complaints until council members voted earlier this month to clear the way for the Falkland redevelopment.
Such back yard controversies may pale beside Gilchrist's avowed attempt to return to the county executive's office the power to appoint the planning board, prepare the master plan and veto any zoning maps approved by the County Council. If Gilchrist is able to push those changes through the General Assembly, or amend the county charter, he would all but destroy a council-planning board marriage that has lasted 13 years.
"It's like the swallows returning to Capistrano," said Christeller, who was a planning board member in 1972 when council Democrats stripped Republican County Executive James P. Gleason of key planning controls. "You stick around long enough in Montgomery County and history repeats itself."