Stifling traffic congestion in Montgomery County has sparked a bitter debate over a series of proposals to curb housing and commercial development -- a controversy that threatens to spill over into local elections next year.
The debate comes as Montgomery County is experiencing unprecedented growth, with more persons living in the county and driving to work there than ever before, according to a new planning board report. Despite a moratorium on subdivision construction in much of the county, a record number of houses are being built and thousands more are on line, and traffic has doubled at some key intersections in the past decade.
The county's Office of Economic Development said that 16 businesses have expressed concern about traffic congestion in the county and six other businesses representing 3,000 jobs have either moved out of the county or opted against locating here because of traffic congestion.
The proposals, introduced by County Council members David Scull and Neal Potter, will be the subject of a public hearing tonight in Rockville. They have drawn praise from citizen groups and denunciations from developers in a confrontation reminiscent of development battles of the 1960s and early 1970s.
"We feel this will be a disaster for the industry," said F. Hamer Campbell Jr., a lobbyist for the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association. "Builders are talking about looking elsewhere to build."
Douglas Troop, president of the Greater Damascus Civic Association, countered, "What Neal Potter and David Scull have done is good, but it's not strong enough."
Troop, like many others involved in the issue, speaks from personal experience. By 6 a.m., he must start his hour-long commute from Damascus to Washington to avoid bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic on I-270 that could add 25 minutes to the journey.
"I'm a night person so it's just terrible; but there is just no other alternative," he said.
Since June, a coalition of developers, zoning lawyers and county businessmen have mounted an intense lobbying campaign to defeat the measures. They have been pitted against a growing number of citizens groups seeking relief.
More than 30 civic associations, including the Montgomery Civic Federation, a major umbrella organization of dozens of groups, have endorsed the measures, said Scull's aide, Ken McIntyre.
Scull is widely expected to run for county executive in next year's elections, and some people opposng his curbs have accused him of trying to ride the development issue into office.
During the past five years, more than 30,000 new residents have been drawn to fast growing communities and hundreds of new jobs have been created in Montgomery County's bustling I-270 corridor. Almost 60 percent of the persons who lived in the county last year also worked here -- compared to 45 percent in 1960. More than half of those held jobs located outside the Beltway.
In contrast, less than one quarter of the county's employed residents commuted downtown to work, compared to 30 percent a decade ago, the planning report states.
Those changes have been the goal of county planners since the mid-1960s, when future development was first mapped out along major highway corridors flanked by wedges of low density residential development. But the growth of traffic congestion has eroded many of the advantages of living and working in the county, according to some.
"The young professional comes to this area, they find a nice job on 270 and they expect to have a lot of services there," said Gary Isabelle, who lives in Germantown and works for a Silver Spring executive recruiting firm.
"But traffic is getting progressively worse. I used to drive down but it took me forever just to get out of Germantown," said Isabelle, who now rides a state-operated commuter train.
New residential and commercial construction is supposed to be linked to the development of roads, sewers and other public amenities under a 1973 law known as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO).
During the past decade new subdivisions and offices were approved under the ordinance based on roads that were supposed to be built by the state or the county. Many of the projects, however, were delayed repeatedly.
A project to relocate and widen Rte. 115 between Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Village Avenue, for example, is just getting under way after eight years, while the $35 million Great Seneca Highway, a crucial county road linking Germantown and Rockville, has been on the drawing board for 19 years.
Both sides agree that the county's severe traffic problems were caused by so-called "slippage" in the road building program because of lack of funds or citizen opposition to roads. But that has not stopped development, according to planning records.
Last year 8,400 houses were built, equaling the record for new housing completions set in 1973. Construction this year is continuing at the same level, according to planners. Since 1980, developers also have built more than 15 million square feet of offices, stores and warehouses in the county. Two-thirds of that has been concentrated in the I-270 corridor.
The effect on traffic has been startling. On I-270 between Montrose Road and Rte. 28, traffic has doubled to 105,000 trips a day over 10 years, although no improvement have been made to the road in that time. At Shady Grove Road and Rte. 355, traffic has soared from 26,300 trips to 54,400 trips each day, according to county records.
APFO standards were tightened in 1982, and today, more than 70 percent of the county is under a moritorium, banning new subdivision construction. But more than 46,000 houses approved in prior years but never built are not affected by the ban, county planners acknowledge.
To limit construction of those units, one of the Scull-Potter proposals would curb the number of building permits issued during the next three years to about 60 percent of the current level. Projects approved more than four years ago would have to go through the APFO process again before a permit could be issued.
A planning board analysis of the bill states that short of "extraordinary measures" to speed up road construction, such limits are the only way to "avoid a several year period of increasing traffic congestion."
The other bills would require road projects to be under contract for construction before a new subdivision could be approved that is serviced by those roads, and would tie the development of new housing more closely to the availability of schools.
Passing such restrictions might also send the wrong signal to the state legislature, which might curtail state funding for new roads, said James S. Culp, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
At tonight's hearing, developers are expected to urge the council to "build its way" out of the current dilemma. "We are already on the way to solving an identified problem. The county executive has started the largest single road construction program of any county in the United States," said Culp.
Developers are expected to propose enacting a piggyback surcharge on license registrations to raise $10 million a year for new roads, according to housing industry sources.
They also are expected to propose a fee to pay for new roads that will be charged to homebuyers at settlement. The county would pay the money back over a period of time through a credit or some other means, the sources said.
County Executive Charles Gilchrist has proposed a six-year $275 million road construction program designed to "catch up" with current development and provide enough capacity for development until the end of the century, said John Clark, head of planning for the county's transporation department. Some of these projects are dependent on state and federal funds.
In addition, the county is encouraging corporations to develop van pools, ride-sharing and other programs.
To win approval for new construction, builders also are required to develop transportation programs and routinely pay as much as $500 per house for traffic improvements said a planning board spokesman.