The Montgomery County Council is drafting a plan to tie future development to the construction of new roads in the I-270 corridor between Rockville and Gaithersburg to help ease traffic congestion in one of Washington's hottest pockets of suburban growth.
The controversial plan, called a "moratorium" by some, is drawing fire from county builders who say it may close a "window of opportunity" on development of high-tech industries in the corridor.
If adopted, it would tighten regulations under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and would allow planners to stage development to coincide more precisely with new road construction.
Road capacity would become the key determinant of growth in the area, much as the availablity of sewer service determined growth patterns in the '70s, according to Perry Berman, a county planner.
"It will only permit development where we literally have a contract to build roads," said council member William Hanna. "That way the capacity will be there to handle the traffic brought on by new development."
The area affected by the plan, known as "Shady Grove West," includes thousands of acres of prime real estate in the fast growing I-270 corridor.
The council this week designated several hundred acres west of Shady Grove Road and I-270 as the site for a new Research and Development Village, a move proponents hailed as the first step toward creating a "world class" center for high-tech industry in the county.
But developers warned that the concept may be jeopardized by limits on development that will result if the traffic congestion plan is approved by the council.
"If we can't move projects into that area rapidly, the window of opportunity might pass us by," said lawyer James Tavel, who represents developers who want to build in the corridor. "There will only be so many centers of that sort."
The plan was proposed this summer by a task force of citizens, developers and county officials. The county planning board endorsed it last month and sent it to the council, which has final authority over local planning and zoning. The council is scheduled to hold a work session next week and hopes to reach a decision on the plan next month.
"It's a road moratorium, but it's not on development, it's on approving further future development," said Planning Board Chairman Norman Christeller.
County residents have complained for years about traffic congestion on area roads, which have been all but overwhelmed by more than a decade of rapid development.
Major arteries, such as Shady Grove Road and Route 28, now operate at unacceptable service levels daily. Several road improvements, such as widening Route 28 to six lanes, have been proposed, but repeatedly delayed, planners say.
By tying development closely to road construction, planners say an already bad traffic situation at least will be kept from getting worse.
"Normally one only has to have 50 percent of the funds in the construction program to get approval for new subdivisions . What we are saying now is the road project has to be advanced beyond the program stage almost to the construction stage," Berman said.
More than 2,000 housing units already have been approved for construction, but more than 4 million square feet of office space and 1,800 other housing units would be affected by the plan, said Berman.
Developers acknowledge that traffic congestion is a problem, but contend that the plan may sacrifice highly desired development to solve a short term problem.
"The long range goals make make it worthwhile to sweat out a short term problem," said Tavel. "We can't predict the market so precisely."
Developers want the county to take a "more flexible" approach. "If there is any amount of room to carry a little bit more a little bit faster, that's the direction they should move in," he said. "Everywhere we can move, we should be able to move."
But Hanna, who chaired the task force, disagreed.
"It may put a hardship on some individual developers, but the staging plan is absolutely necessary to gain acceptance of the overall plan by the community," he said. "They're 1,000 percent behind it."