A Montgomery County Council committee, confronted by a band of citizens irate over Gaithersburg's proposed annexation of the Washingtonian Golf Course, did this week what politicians everywhere like to do about controversial issues--they ducked.
Although planners for Gaithersburg have ironed out an agreement with the prospective developer over the 148-acre tract northwest of Muddy Branch Road and Rte. 28, and although the County Planning Board favors the plan, nearby residents have managed to turn the question into a hot potato.
Thus, as a county council work session on Tuesday made plain, neither city nor county council members are very eager to be the first to say yes.
"One thing I know I'm going to do," said County Council member William E. Hanna Jr., chairman of the Planning, Housing and Economics Committee, after explaining what the committee couldn't do, "I'm not going to act until I hear what the City of Gaithersburg wants to do."
With that, the matter bounced back yet again.
Thousands of citizens--i.e., voters--who live west of I-270 must fight traffic on Rte. 28 each day, and in the last few years they have grown angrier and angrier as housing development continues in that area while road expansion has been delayed. The sharper their interest in the political process of land development has become in recent months, the keener the focus on the shortfalls of county policies, and exactly who is responsible for each decision.
With lawyers and analysts among their number, citizens' groups have been doing their research and organizing a network among the subdivisions. They posted a sign last week along Rte. 28 advising stuck motorists to vent their frustrations, and listed the county council's phone number. They dispatch representatives to every meeting, pressing their elected and appointed officials to answer questions that for years have been left tangled in the intricacies of long-range plans, highway studies, road construction funding and special county development laws.
Concerns have peaked as the proposed annexation of the Washingtonian land and plans for the 743 houses and "clustered" dwellings that developer Jay Alfandre wants to build there reach a point where the next step is approval or rejection.
Gaithersburg's council has the authority to annex the land, but cannot intensify the zoning for five years unless the county council approves; each has asked the other to state its intentions.
At Tuesday's committee meeting, representatives of resident groups said the approval of Alfandre's project, even with special restrictions and concessions, would be inconsistent with county plans and policies.
They noted that Alfandre's property, which was part of the vicinity being considered in the Gaithersburg area master plan--the first comprehensive rezoning since 1971--was given special consideration when the planning board recommended denser zoning for the property than its own staff suggested. Board members said at the time that they processed that parcel early because of deadlines for Alfandre's financing.
"We've addressed the planning board and the county council as well, dating back to 1980, talking about the traffic problems," Harvey Perry, president of Westleigh Citizens Association, told council members. "You told us to work with the planning board on the Gaithersburg area master plan. Well, now the master plan is not even adopted and this developer seems to be ramming through his plans."
Perry and others criticized what they and county council member Rose Crenca said was a lack of coordination among county plans, road construction scheduling and the development plans of Rockville and Gaithersburg.
Norman L. Christeller, chairman of the county planning board, defended his board's action. He said its recommendation for density of up to five houses per acre was consistent with an increased density that the board was recommending for the Shady Grove Opportunity Area, a site between Rockville and Gaithersburg where planners want to place corporate campuses and surrounding housing complexes. Municipal officials have said they feared that would constitute a "third city," which has been referred to as "Rockburg."
Marilee Giebel, a resident of the neighboring subdivision of Westleigh, said that whole plan violates the county's policy passed in 1971 that calls for development of long "corridors" of cities and open space in the "wedges" in between.
"You started out with wedges and corridors, and you end up with Rockburg," she said. "If you are going to put 77,000 people on Rte. 28, then, darn it, you have to have the roads to handle them."
The county's Adequate Public Facilites Ordinance--which was heralded as a means to limit development to only that amount that services (roads) could handle--came under attack.
Crenca dismissed it as a "joke and a disaster," and said that, so long as there is no overall, coordinated approach to building county roads, stray improvements will create more traffic jams.
Critics said that the ordinance permits development if the scheduled road improvement has only half of the needed money set aside in the road projects only in a few cases, such as Muddy Branch Road, where funded improvements have been delayed for more than a decade fallen behind on road projects. He said the county also assumed the financial burden of funding the widening of Rte. 28, a road for which "the state has been grossly negligent in carrying out its responsibility." he said.
Christeller said the expansion of Rte. 28 and the construction of Key West Boulevard, a proposed northern fork from the road, would offer some traffic relief. He said that, aside from what has happened in other cases, the road projects that are planned and funded will be built before Alfandre is able to add more families to the area.
He also cautioned the citizens that, if the county refuses Alfandre the density he requested, he can still can annex into Gaithersburg and get a municipal zoning change five years from then. If that happens, Christeller said, there would be no way to impose bargaining power for the conditions that Alfandre has agreed to meet now, Christeller said.
Alfandre has agreed with the county to build a lane onto Rte. 28 and contribute more than other developers who have formed a "road club" to meet capacity requirements by paying for construction. He has also agreed to build two lanes onto Muddy Branch Road as it runs along his property. He said he would offer 15 percent of his homes in a "moderate" price range, although no one has said what price that would be.
He also agreed to locate erect single-family homes on the side abutting the Westleigh community. And he agreed to build parkland and use "greenspace" to insulate the town house clusters from view of the roads.
Jennifer Russel, Gaithersburg's planning director, said the city would make those conditions part of the annexation agreement, and prodded Hanna once again. "It's not clear to me how the city council is going to make a dicision when they don't know what the county council thinks," Russel said.
Hanna closed the meeting, directing his staff to gather all the information on road construction plans for the area in time for the June 14 meeting, which is one day before Alfandre's financing runs over its extended deadline, according to his lawyer, Jack Nuemann. Hanna also asked the citizens to consider the consessions concessions, and that the roads would be built in due time, probably before Alfandre's houses could be built and sold.
And he directed Gaithersburg to say whether it wants to annex before the county decides the zoning, adding: "We're only doing it because the City of Gaithersburg has asked us to do it."