Before Larry Rosenblum and his family moved into Germantown, they were just numbers on a piece of paper, hypothetical units factored into the surrounding sewer envelope, traffic shed and housing density mix. They were contented, on paper.
The trouble started when reality took over where government planning left off -- when the Rosenblums actually moved into Maryland's fastest growing community.
In Germantown, there were town houses where high-rises had been planned. There were forests where there should have been grocery stores. There were massive traffic jams and temporary classroom buildings instead of adequate roads and schools. Where neighbors strolled contentedly down sidewalks on paper, in reality they were driving their Buicks for miles to the nearest store.
"It never occurred to me that they wouldn't have everything set up here," said the 30-year-old accountant, sitting in his town house den with his wife Jody and infant daughter Amy. "I figured they'd take care of the roads and schools, right? Wrong."
Rosenblum had discovered the planning gap, a chasm between what he saw on paper and what he got on Choctaw Court, the street where he lives.
The record shows Germantown isn't the only place in the northern and western half of Montgomery County -- the so-called upcounty area -- where plan and reality have not agreed.
Ten miles to the east, there's a whole town that wasn't supposed to happen, at least not the way it did happen. It's called Olney. A few miles to the south, the real Gaithersburg is at odds with the one on paper 10 years ago. To the north, Clarksburg was programmed to double in population in the past 10 years. Instead it shrank about 40 percent.
Still, the county planners keep on planning and the large-scale developments keep coming, particularly in the area along Rte. I-270, the principal matrix of future growth in upcounty Montgomery.
In the past year alone, developers and county officials have announced a passel of new projects, including a $500 million business and residential complex called the Washingtonian Center; a $3.5 million venture between the government and the University of Maryland known as the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology; hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new roads, including the widening of I-270 to 12 lanes; five new schools, and a continuing stream of new residential subdivisions.
The proposals are promising, but will there be a gap between what's on paper and what is actually built? Which future lies in store for upcounty Montgomery -- the abstract one concocted by planners or the one hammered into place by the chaotic forces of profit-minded developers, intergovernmental conflicts and the inevitable dips and rises of the economy?
This story, based on dozens of interviews with planners, developers, attorneys, residents and elected officials, examines these and other questions about growth in upcounty Montgomery, the fastest developing section of the county. The upcounty area is generally considered to be bounded on the west by the Potomac River and on the north by the Frederick and Howard county lines. The eastern boundary is formed by Georgia Avenue and the southern roughly by a line north of Rockville that runs from Travilah to Olney. Planners Build on a 1964 Blueprint
Montgomery County planners refer dutifully to the past, even as their pencils are sketching the 21st century. Working from a document called "On Wedges and Corridors: a general plan," a blueprint for growth approved in 1964 by the County Council, they labor in a tradition begun years ago by E. Brooke Lee, the Montgomery County landowner and politician who was midwife to the whole idea of suburbia here.
It was Lee who recognized that, by shaping growth, planners and elected officials could fashion a gilded county where land values would rise and the cost of government services could be imposed without political upheaval. Planning, he understood, conserved public funds by coordinating growth and services.
The planners and leaders since Lee have done well, by most accounts. The county, one of the nation's wealthiest, is considered a model of planning.
"Montgomery County is well known in planning circles and development circles as being one of the more sophisticated planning jurisdictions in the country -- has been for decades," said Doug Porter, director of the development policy program for the Urban Land Institute.
Planners there have enjoyed advantages over their counterparts in other jurisdictions where large, open tracts of land are also still available for development. Fairfax County planners, for example, have been hampered by unfriendly courts that have favored developers, said Jay Langford, chief of planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"It's much more difficult for a local government in Virginia to control growth," he said. "The developer has the right to go ahead and start building the subdivision despite the fact the county may not want it to be a subdivision until 2025."
In Prince George's County, planning procedures today are "not dramatically different" from Montgomery's, Langford said. However, planning in Prince George's has been hampered by decisions made in the past.
"For the longest time, Prince George's planned for and accepted maybe more than its share of blue-collar industry and warehousing, and now Prince George's is seeking development that would generate a better return to the county, less polluting industries, the technology industries you see on 270 corridor," Langford said. In planning terms, it is harder to shift courses, as Prince George's is doing, than to stay on track.
So why, if Montgomery County is such a paragon of planning, do citizens like Larry Rosenblum worry so much that their children will end up in overcrowded classrooms?
The answer is that there are higher powers than bureaucrats. As John J. Clark, the county's director of transportation planning, noted, "We as planners put on our wizard hats and try to predict, but the marketplace plays a very important role in determining the areas of development." A Vision of a Controlled Future
Perry Berman gets a misty look in his eyes when he describes what the proposed Washingtonian Center housing and business complex will look like some day, slung alongside I-270 like a Mercedes-Benz in a showroom window. For planners like Berman, who is chief of the county's community planning north office, there is nothing quite so esthetic as the promise of a future controlled.
What follows is a portrait of that future controlled: the look of upcounty Montgomery in 1994, as envisioned by county planners and elected officials in optimistic scenarios. It is a paper future. It glows, of course.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, 1994 -- At the outer reaches of the upcounty area the future is, well, the same as the past. The vast Agricultural Reserve in 1994, about one-third of the entire county's acreage, preserves open space and productive farms by maintaining 25-acre zoning limits. This land forms the "wedges" in the Wedges and Corridors plan.
County planners, by effectively keeping this land off-limits to developers, have been able to focus growth where they wanted it -- primarily along the I-270 corridor.
In the upcounty area surrounding that corridor, the population has grown 44 percent compared to 12 percent countywide. Fortunately, by 1994 adequate school facilities have been constructed to accommodate the surge in numbers, which has been exacerbated by a baby boomlet already in evidence 10 years ago.
The so-called corridor cities of Gaithersburg and Germantown, in particular, have been magnets for development in the last decade and population has boomed there.
Gaithersburg (the incorporated city and its vicinity) had a population of 75,700 in 1984 and has 102,000 now. Germantown had 18,000 then and has 48,900 in 1994.
The "satellite" towns of Damascus and Olney -- off the corridor but still attractive to new residents -- have shown steady growth of about 20 percent. Meanwhile, at the far edge of the developing matrix, the "next" corridor city of Clarksburg is a small town of 1,400 or so, little changed in 10 years.
As development has moved outward and population swelled, the cores of the corridor cities have become increasingly urbanized. Eventually, these centers may begin to resemble the look of Bethesda's business district in 1984, but that hasn't happened yet.
Montgomery County officials, by bringing more commercial and industrial development to the I-270 corridor, have significantly increased the tax base and thereby managed to keep the tax rate for residents from rising.
In 1984, 60 percent of employed county residents worked inside the county; by 1994, that number has grown significantly as employment opportunities have increased and the county has become more self-sufficient. In addition, more people are commuting from homes in Frederick and Howard counties to jobs in Upper Montgomery.
While some of the new upcounty residents have simply migrated from downcounty areas, others were attracted from around the nation by jobs in high-tech industries that have spun off from the federal government. Telecommunications and biotechnology enterprises, once reliant on government contracts, have matured to form a nexus of private industry that perpetuates itself.
The biggest boom in new employment is in the Shady Grove West area between Rockville and Gaithersburg, west of I-270, where biotechnology firms are using biological agents to produce food additives, cleaning products, industrial chemicals and medicines.
Spurred by the creation of the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center and an adjacent research and development village envisioned by County Council member William E. Hanna Jr., the new biotech companies have made upcounty Montgomery the capital of the so-called "Biotech Valley," Washington's answer to the Silicon Valley of California.
The jewel of the upcounty area's development in the last 10 years has been the Washingtonian Center. Built on prime land that was once a golf course, the $500 million complex occupies 212 acres around Washingtonian Towers, a notable 26-story landmark built in 1966 west of I-270 between Rockville and Gaithersburg.
Washingtonian Center, proposed in mid-1984 by a private developer, is a state-of-the-art example of modern urban planning. Laid out beside a lake with waterfalls and bridges, Washingtonian Center is virtually a city unto itself with 1,500 residential units, 3.5 million square feet of office space, a 12-story hotel, restaurants, health clubs and retail stores, most of which has been built by 1994.
The last and perhaps most glorious aspect of the future is that it has roads that work. By 1994, some $400 million in road improvements have been made or soon will be made to deliver upcounty residents to wherever they want to go.
The most spectacular projects are the $150 million widening of I-270 to 12 lanes (well under way by 1994 and expected to be completed up to Clarksburg by the end of the millenium); the completed I-370 and its connector that move masses of transit passengers to the Gaithersburg Metro stop; the completed Great Seneca Highway west of I-270 and the Midcounty Highway east of it, both of which relieve pressure on I-270, and a network of smaller state and county roads that were designed to break up the bottlenecks plaguing drivers a decade ago.
In 1994, the transportation dollar is spent differently than it once was. While 50 cents on the dollar went for public transit 10 years ago, now 65 cents does. Metrorail ridership has tripled; so has the number of buses serving the Metro stops. The popular van pool system, which moves commuters in small groups by private vans coordinated by the county, has tripled in ridership, too. The Reality of 1984
Here is another portrait of upcounty Montgomery, the 1984 version that does not especially glow. It shows all too clearly how plans can go awry.
In the darkness just before the dawn, a string of lights began to twinkle. The cars on I-270 already were speeding to beat the madness of rush hour.
T. Scott Graham was putting on his coat and tie, and girding himself mentally for the commuting task ahead. He lives in a quiet neighborhood called The Knolls just outside Gaithersburg, a sprawling city of subdivisions and commercial complexes that engulf the little town it used to be. At 7:35 a.m., Graham wheeled his Chrysler New Yorker out of the driveway and turned onto Rte. 28, bound for his job 25 miles and one hour away in Greenbelt.
Almost immediately, he linked up with a chain of automobiles grinding four miles south to I-270. During the 35 minutes he spent traveling those miles, Graham scanned the cornfields that were scheduled to be subdivisions and the country stores slated to become shopping centers.
"It's like growing a crop out here, just putting up houses," said the North Carolina native. "They get more taxes by subdividing the farms and putting houses on them. But the amenities just haven't kept up."
Crawling down the ramp and onto an almost gridlocked I-270, the 44-year-old commercial property manager observed, "It just seems to me that it's taxes. It's economics. In order to keep from having a state deficit like you have a national deficit, it pays to keep putting up subdivisions."
In the game of allowing growth without adequate infrastructure, however, there comes a point of diminishing returns, where the glowing future is at risk.
Dr. John C. Parker, president of Microbiological Associates, provides ample proof of that, and of the growing awareness that the area's much-heralded biotech companies can't clone many microbes if their technicians are spending all their time in traffic jams.
Parker's company, now based in Bethesda, agreed more than a year ago to move to the county's new Shady Grove Life Sciences Center and still has plans to break ground on its own building this month. In October, however, Parker was inspired to write a letter of protest to the county executive deploring the shortcomings of the roads. "Much of our enthusiasm at Micro for locating in the life sciences center ," he wrote, "is now gone as I believe we will be severely handicapped in recruiting and providing a good working environment for our employes."
Public complaints like Parker's don't make good press for the county's vigorous economic development program. Ioanna Morfessis, director of economic development, responds by promising that road improvements are on the way. "We think that transportation improvements planned over 10 years will dramatically improve access," she said.
But promises like that have been made before and weren't fulfilled.
Transportation planner Clark attributes the problem to "slippage." In the past, he said, housing and commercial developments routinely were approved by the county based on supporting road projects that were expected to be built but existed only on paper.
The developments were built but the roads were indefinitely delayed as their schedules "slipped" in the face of State Highway Administration funding shortfalls, which were particularly severe between the 1974 recession year and 1982, when a state gas tax brought in a gusher of new revenue.
Even if the money for roads had been there, county officials would have found themselves playing a tricky game of timing. That's because it's possible to build roads too soon, as well as too late. If supporting roads are built before residents move in, taxpayers are quick to accuse government of spending money to help developers entice buyers.
"Politically, you simply cannot go out into virgin territory and spend all that money on roads . People won't stand for it," said William Hurley, a vice president for Kettler Brothers Inc., the firm that developed Montgomery Village, a planned community of 25,000 north of Gaithersburg.
To counter the adverse effects of paper roads, proposed developments today can't win approval unless at least 50 percent of the funding for road improvements has already been allocated, said Norman L. Christeller, chairman of the county planning board. Soon, he said, the county will likely require 80 percent. And even stricter standards for road improvements have been proposed for the Shady Grove West area between Rockville and Gaithersburg.
There is more to the traffic problem than just "slippage." There is also the matter of different governmental entities working at cross purposes. The Montgomery County and Gaithersburg governments are an example.
"We didn't have very good information from Gaithersburg on what developments they were approving," Christeller said, recalling past problems he believes have been corrected. "Their approvals generated traffic. I'm not blaming them. I'm saying we hadn't been able to develop an adequate system of collecting information as to what they were going to be generating."
The failure to communicate, and the more fundamental failure to agree on the shape of growth, has marked the relationship between Gaithersburg and the county for years.
In the 1960s, a growth-minded city government in Gaithersburg went on a spree of annexation that quintupled the city's acreage, with much of the land used for new apartment complexes. In the 1970s, according to Jennifer Russel, the planning director, a reaction set in and the city fathers sought to curtail high-density development. Wielding authority over land use inside city limits, Gaithersburg's leaders defied the county's hopes that the city would have the high-density core envisioned in the Wedges and Corridors plan.
"We've reevaluated our core," Russel said. "We didn't want it to be another Tysons Corner. We don't want it to be an urban core. We want it to be a suburban core. And there's a difference."
Christeller observed that Gaithersburg, like other municipalities outside the county's control, is now dominated politically by interests that, having moved into town, are seeking to slow growth. "Eventually, they got enough people there that they started saying, 'We want a little bit of restraint exercised here,' " he said.
Disappointed in the Gaithersburg skyline, the county looks to the Shady Grove West area as a major focus for growth. The site of the planned Washingtonian Center as well as high-tech commercial developments and major new housing complexes, Shady Grove West is already a source of conflict between the county and the cities of Gaithersburg and Rockville.
Some city leaders have dubbed Shady Grove West, "Rockburg," and called it a sprawling mass that defeats the idea of discrete corridor cities. "It seemed to create a third city between Gaithersburg and Rockville," Russel said.
Representatives of the cities and the county, believing that cooperation makes better planning possible between jurisdictions, formed a task force this year to hash out their differences on "Rockburg." The county later agreed to "stage" growth in the area; that is, orchestrate the projects and road improvements in phases. On other matters, the cities and the county have agreed not to agree.
Residents living near "Rockburg" remain concerned that the urbanized zone will overwhelm the suburban character of their neighborhoods. "We don't want to be paved over," said Susan Fellows, a Gaithersburg neighborhood activist. The Boom in Germantown
The hills are alive with neighborhood entrance signs for Quail Ridge, Waters Landing, Chadsworth, Churchill and Brandermill -- evoking the patrician life of the English countryside, the felicitous proximity of water and the abundance of game. The hills are also alive with town houses, much to the chagrin of planners who projected a different kind of place.
In Germantown, too, the future refused the bridle.
In 1974, planners said the town's population of 4,200 would skyrocket to 32,200 by 1984. In reality, the population of the area today is 18,000. Much of that increase has come in the past two years -- enough to make it the fastest growing region in the state -- but Germantown did not boom the way the county expected.
The predominance of town houses and the absence of much significant commercial development to support them have disappointed planners. For many Germantown residents the ubiquitous town houses are a paradox: They were the magnet and now they are the millstone.
Drawn to town houses because they are affordable, owners are discovering that a glut of new units undermines the resale value of the old ones. Unable to sell them at a profit, many owners can't make the hoped-for jump to a detached single-family house.
As Larry Rosenblum, a Quail Ridge resident, noted, "Nobody wants to live in a town house the rest of their lives."
The town house explosion, according to Christeller, happened because developers in the 1970s perceived little demand for the high-rise residential projects shown on the Germantown Master Plan and many of them opted to get a return on their land investments by plunging into town house construction. County leaders, trying to keep Germantown viable, felt the squeeze and permitted the town house boom.
It was a case of market forces overwhelming the county's plans. But there was nothing altogether surprising in that. In Olney in the 1960s, concessions to development pressures resulted in a new sewer line there that put the town years ahead of its growth schedule, Christeller recalled.
Ironically, while some county residents complain that their government is too compliant in the face of market pressures, some Montgomery County developers complain that the county government puts them through an obstacle course of restrictions and procedural review.
For example, in the case of the Washingtonian Center it is likely that ground will not be broken until the fall of 1985, 2 1/2 years after the land was purchased. And that is a best-case scenario.
The project's start-up is subject to the County Council's approval of an updated master plan for the area. After that, the developer's plans must be scrutinized by the planning board staff, the planning board itself, a zoning hearing examiner and the County Council, all of whom separately hear the case for Washingtonian Center and pass judgment on the necessary rezoning by report or vote or both. If the council ultimately approves the project, it must then go back to the planning board for approval of detailed site plans.
"It would be fair and honest of me to say that I am frustrated with the process, with the amount of time that has to pass," said Joseph P. Clancy, senior vice president for the Atlanta-based Ackerman & Co., the developer.
Stephen Z. Kaufman, a land-use lawyer with the firm of Linowes and Blocher, said, "Sometimes it's a nightmare over here. Clients say, 'I wish I was in Virginia or somewhere else because it doesn't seem like a very favorable atmosphere for developers.' . . . The county is losing some very good development because it's so darn hard to get through the process." Corridors, Open Spaces Remain
In Montgomery County, it is the tension between government regulation and private enterprise, between planning and improvising, that determines the future. The last 10 years didn't happen quite the way they were supposed to; the next 10 won't either.
Yet a look at the Wedges and Corridors plan of 1964, and the updated master plans that succeeded it, shows that to a great extent planning has shaped the basic outlines of the upcounty area. There are indeed corridors, corridor cities, open spaces and satellite cities.
"What appeals to me and gives me some sense of confidence in the future," said County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, "is the extent to which we have stuck with the basic concept: that we have these corridors, that we are going to preserve substantial green space, that we have a growing potential for high-tech employment and that it is going to be realized. There is going to be change but it is change within a pattern we established long ago."
The planners' map may not look quite as it was envisioned in the flush years of the early '60s, or even in the austere years that followed. But there's nothing sacred about a map, or a planner's wizard hat. As attorney Kaufman pointed out, "Government can always change its mind."