The Montgomery County Council yesterday approved a strategic plan for economic development that calls for jobs to grow faster than the county's population or its number of homes, a formula that the plan's critics say will result in more traffic and higher housing prices.
In some ways, the debate over the plan reflected the central issue facing the county: whether to promote business development as a means of guaranteeing Montgomery's famed quality of life or whether growth should be curtailed to defend the high caliber of the county's public schools, its much-touted recreational areas and other aspects of that very same quality of life.
Several council members derided the plan as a "slick brochure" or a "political document" intended to lure businesses to the county. Some disparaged the document's job-growth target -- 2 percent per year for a decade -- as meaningless. Yet when the time came to vote on a key change to the plan, the division was stark.
An amendment that would have removed the numerical growth target and called for a balance between the number of new jobs and the amount of new housing was defeated 5 to 4; the overall document eventually passed the council 8 to 1. Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), the author of the failed amendment, was the lone dissenter.
"We will inevitably see more people coming into the county [to work], which will exacerbate our congestion and push up housing prices," Andrews said.
At the rear of the council chamber, a handful of like-minded advocates made their views known as council members debated. One audience member held a sign that read: "This plan = more congestion, less affordable housing, less open space."
The sign's holder, Tina Brown, campaign director for the Washington-based advocacy group Solutions Not Sprawl, said overall growth promoted in the plan was not the way to "keep kids in the classroom and out of the portable trailers."
Also sitting in the chamber were representatives of the county's business community. "This document does an adequate job of laying out an agenda and a direction for economic development in the county," said Richard N. Parsons, president and chief executive of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. Echoing some of the comments from pro-growth council members, he said the foundation of everyone's quality of life is a growing economy. In a county noted for rigorous planning, he asked, "Where is the plan for keeping our economy strong?"
The plan articulates an overarching vision that seems immune to controversy: to "foster a growing, diversified, and innovative economy, providing opportunity and prosperity for businesses and residents alike, while sustaining the County's quality of life."
It then calls on the county to foster a "progressive" business climate, "stimulate the provision of transportation infrastructure" and continue promoting Montgomery's headline industries: biosciences and health care.
In the main, the document promotes policies aimed at expanding business and offers an equation of its own: "growing tax base = good public services."
The controversy at the council meeting centered on the plan's housing and employment growth targets: 2 percent annually for jobs, 1.4 percent for housing units, 1.2 percent for population. The job-growth target, the document says, is in keeping with what the county has experienced for more than a decade.
"It does not intuitively make sense to me that we should strive for more jobs than people," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). Along with Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), he supported Andrews's amendment but later voted to approve the document as a whole.
Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) was the plan's -- and the job-growth target's -- most vociferous supporter, arguing that the council should establish targets and benchmarks against which to measure future performance. "If you're not supporting 2 percent," he told his colleagues, "you're not supporting what we've been doing for the last 13 years."