Armed with stacks of documents, charts and typewritten testimony, hundreds of Montgomery County residents converged on Rockville yesterday to tell the County Council that they want some kind of control placed on growth in the county. But they had their own ideas about how that best could be done.
The hearing focused on legislation that the county has been wrestling with for more than a year, during a time of record development when highways were already jammed at rush hour. Under consideration are bills that would tend to slow the pace of development by placing fees or taxes on construction to pay for roads and other services.
Also being debated is a more controversial bill that would place a limit over three years on the number of building permits issued in the county.
As they testified throughout the afternoon and into the evening, representatives of civic associations, builders associations, grass-roots coalitions of lawyers, bankers and developers, and individual citizens made it clear that the debate over development will not be over soon, no matter what legislation is approved.
The problem does not lie with the existing laws that spell out when public services should be provided, "nor does it lie with the builders and developers," said James Tavel, a lawyer with the Linowes & Blocher legal firm who coordinates a citizens coalition known as Montgomery County's Effective Regional Growth Effort (MERGE).
"The blame falls on the government's failure to provide roads and public facilities as promised in past years," Tavel said.
"We are not opposed to growth policy," said Cathy Bernard, chairman of the county's Housing Opportunity Commission and an opponent of measures that would hurt financially stretched home buyers. "We are against one that adversely affects lower-priced housing.
The proposals for a building cap and the concept of an excise tax on construction that would be used for capital needs in all areas of the county were made by council member David Scull.
County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, who described Scull's proposal for a building cap as "irresponsible and radical," has proposed that the county instead impose "impact fees" on developments in Clarksburg, Germantown and the eastern part of the county that overburden public facilities.
The money generated by the fees could be used to pay half the cost of major roads needed in the growing areas, Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist took center stage in the debate yesterday with a detailed commentary on Scull's proposals, saying they fell "short of the sound governmental practice that Montgomery County residents deserve and respect.
"Neither measure should be enacted," he said. "I will veto any bill which contains either building permit caps or excise taxes on new development."
Representatives from the MERGE coalition -- which represents a number of organizations, including the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association, the Gaithersburg Chamber of Commerce, the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce and the county Board of Realtors -- dominated the afternoon session with predictions of how the county would be adversely affected by restraints proposed by Scull.
Stephen Brooks, a consultant hired by MERGE to review the economic feasibility of the proposals, cautioned council members against taking any measures that would restrain growth for a county whose "fortunes are very closely tied with the growth of the federal budget."
Pointing to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings federal deficit-cutting plan that recently passed Congress, Brooks told the council that such cutbacks raise the possibility of major reductions in the flow of federal dollars into the local economy.
"Given the extreme uncertainties . . . it seems a most inopportune time to begin an uncertain, arbitrary, and costly set of programs with a very uncertain but probably negative long-term impact," Brooks said. Council member Neal Potter said to Gilchrist, "Charlie, I think you're better when you're not so political and emotional." Later, Potter described a statement by a MERGE member as "propaganda that tended to obscure" the issue of the future of the county.
Planning Board Chairman Norman Christeller spoke to support the Scull proposal for an excise tax, after a vote by the board late last week to choose that as the most broad-based measure to generate revenues.
The Germantown Citizens Association, one of several organizations from northern Montgomery County, differed in its testimony with representatives of the Germantown Chamber of Commerce and other business representatives, which oppose the excise tax and support the fee concept.
"The excise tax seems to be a better alternative than impact fees," said Susan Soderberg, representing the Germantown citizens.
Henry Herman, president of the Regency Estates Citizens Association in Potomac, told the council that "I cannot share the extreme pessimism being spread by the builders and chambers of commerce as if this legislation means the end of the world. I consider these threats to be scare tactics."
Herman said his association supported the growth management program proposed by Scull, adding that "the congestion is getting worse and worse."
The West Montgomery County Citizens Association, represented by Fernando Bren, also took the council to task for not limiting growth. "We must moderate the pace of development in our county, and we must be prepared to pay for the concomitant public facilities which any pace of development requires . . . . Developers are not the enemy, but helter-skelter growth is," he said.