The five Montgomery County residents meet once a week in an auditorium furnished with plastic chairs and Formica-topped tables, often with few spectators. They listen for hours to a drone of minutiae ranging from the number of trees that should be retained at a construction site to the amount of traffic clogging the streets.
Yet, despite the arcane detail that appears to dominate these sessions, this group makes far-reaching decisions affecting the quality of life of thousands of people and the profits of hundreds of businesses.
Welcome to the Montgomery County Planning Board.
This group of five County Council appointees made headlines last week when local officials tangled over control of the Planning Board membership in particular and the planning system in general.
"This is one more set of downs in the football game," said Edward Crowley, vice president of Kettler Brothers, a major developer in Montgomery County.
The "game," as Crowley dubbed it, is the struggle over Montgomery County development controls, a high-stakes battle that traditionally pits resident against developer. Today there is a new twist as the fast-growing upcounty areas vie with the more established downcounty sections for a share of the power in deciding important development questions.
One example of this latest tension is County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist's veto last Monday of the council's appointment of a Bethesda area resident to the Planning Board, which already has four representatives from Bethesda. Responding to outcries from state delegates and upcounty community leaders, Gilchrist declared that a selection of someone from another part of the county is necessary to satisfy a new state law calling for a broadening of the board membership.
At the same time, however, the County Council is considering an action that would undercut the executive's authority -- granted by the legislature this year -- to veto master plans and appoint two of the five board members. In recent years the council has had the exclusive right to appoint the Planning Board and to veto plans.
The exchange of fire is one illustration of the importance of the Planning Board in Montgomery County, where an affluent and active citizenry traditionally has sought to affect the style and speed of growth.
"How powerful is the Planning Board? Powerful enough to stop development in Montgomery County," contended Charles Dalrymple, a Silver Spring attorney who regularly represents developers seeking board approval of construction projects.
Board Chairman Norman L. Christeller disagrees with that assessment. He said that board members "don't have a lot of power; we have a lot of influence." He added that the County Council has the final say over Planning Board decisions.
But council member Scott Fosler takes the position that the Planning Board is as powerful as the council permits it to be -- "and the council has allowed it to be quite powerful in the last five years."
Among the important projects shaped by the Planning Board since 1980, for instance, are the millions of dollars worth of developments near the new Metrorail stops in Montgomery County, in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring and in the booming upcounty areas of Germantown and Gaithersburg.
Fosler said the council has appointed Planning Board members and adopted the board's recommendations without much question. When the public has objected to the effect of Planning Board actions, such as congested roads resulting from the new homes and businesses, the council has sought to to pin the blame on the board, he said.
"The council plays this game if something goes wrong, saying, 'Gosh, the Planning Board did that,' " Fosler said.
The Planning Board consists of a full-time director, Christeller, who is paid $75,578 a year, and four part-time members, each of whom is paid $10,600 a year plus up to $1,200 a year for expenses.
The Montgomery board and the five members of the Prince George's County Planning Board comprise the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a state agency created by the General Assembly in 1927 to administer park development and park design for the bicounty area.
But most of the work of the commission is delegated to the two county planning boards, each of which meets once a week in its own jurisdiction to deal with local planning and development as well as parks. And those familiar with the two boards contend that the Montgomery County group wields considerably more power than the Prince George's board.
Developer attorney Dalrymple said that reflects local attitudes toward growth. "Prince George's County tries to encourage development," he said. "Montgomery County tries to stop it."
At its brick-and-glass headquarters in downtown Silver Spring, the Montgomery board administers a $35.8 million budget and oversees a planning staff of about 120 people and a parks staff of about 600.
Christeller, 63, who has been chairman since 1981, dominates the board, partly because he is full time and the other board members are part time and partly because he is an aggressive administrator. His credentials include managing a Washington law firm, operating a Maryland carpet and drapery business and serving as vice president of the Arlington-based Institute for Defense Analyses and financial manager of the National Bureau of Standards.
Part-time Planning Board members are: Richard M. (Max) Keeney, 55, Bethesda, a board member since 1984. Keeney previously served on the Planning Board (1975-80), was a member of the County Council (1966-70) and has been active in local school, community and Republican groups. He is employed as the membership and insurance director of the Air Force Association, a nonprofit group. Betty Ann Krahnke, 43, Chevy Chase, a board member since 1979. Krahnke, who is unopposed in the Republican primary for the County Council, has been active in school and community associations, including the Citizens Coordinating Committee of Friendship Heights. Judith B. Heimann, who refuses to divulge her age on the grounds that it is irrelevant, Bethesda, a board member since 1979. Heimann has a long record of involvement in local government and community affairs and in the League of Women Voters -- as president of the county chapter, state vice president and national league director. Mable Granke, 61, Silver Spring, a board member since 1975. Although her term expired June 14, she serves until her successor is approved. Granke's community and civic activities include the Bi-County Transportation Study Committee and in the local League of Women Voters.
Although board members now come from the same general geographic part of the county, they are divided on the latest controversies involving their agency.
Christeller, for instance, contends that geographic considerations should not necessarily override candidate qualifications for board membership, as they did in the case of Rosalie Silverberg, whose appointment was vetoed by the county executive because of her Bethesda area address.
Krahnke and Keeney, however, say that the council erred in failing to appoint a new board member from outside the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area.
But the two are split on the Christeller campaign to override the county executive's new legislative authority to appoint two board members and to veto master plans. Christeller has urged the council to place questions on the fall election ballot that he hopes would send a signal to legislators to repeal the laws.
"I disagree with what Christeller is trying to do," said Keeney, who made an unsuccessful run for county executive in 1978. "I have always thought the executive should have a say in planning matters . . . . I think it probably would be wise to have the executive play a stronger role in planning."
Krahnke supports the Christeller drive to get Planning Board appointments and vetoes back in the exclusive hands of the council. "I support a larger role for the executive," Krahnke said, "but to give one person a veto at the end is a corruption of the planning process."