Forty years ago, the idea for the behemoth Montgomery Village on 2,566 acres of farmland just outside Gaithersburg was a dream in the developer's eye--not even a concept on a drafting table. Today, in the parlance of city planners, Montgomery Village is a "mature" suburb, home to about 38,000 people and exhibiting all the potential and problems that come with the territory.
And on Sept. 30, 1999, the community reached a milestone of sorts. The last Montgomery Village parcel owned by Kettler Brothers Homes, the original developer, went to settlement and one last young couple moved into their new home, on Yankee Harbor Drive.
"It's kind of the end of an era," said Deane Mellander, zoning coordinator for Montgomery County since 1971. For more than four decades, "Kettler Brothers exercised a unifying tutelage over the county's first attempt at a fully integrated New Town." Unlike other large planned-unit developments, Montgomery Village survived the oil embargo and gasoline crises of the 1970s and two back-to-back recessions, not to mention major demographic changes and development trends in the Washington area.
To a large degree it was company founder Clarence Kettler's vision and the family firm's steady hand at the helm that made it possible to complete the "build-out" under one owner, Mellander said.
Designed as a satellite city to Washington's urban center, Montgomery Village followed the same kind of Johnson administration-era thinking that spawned Columbia in Howard County and Reston in Virginia.
Montgomery Village was part of the second or third "New Town" movement to seize the imagination of city planners this century, said Royce Hanson, 68, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board from 1972 to 1981, when many of the Village's component subdivisions came up for zoning approval.
For the Village, the Kettler brothers--Clarence, Milton and Charles--engineered a mix of starter homes, garden apartments, rental high-rises and detached single-family homes. They were tapping into changing ideas about what constituted a proper home in what was then "the fastest-growing county in America," Hanson said. Before then, he said, few developers knew how to do so. Hanson himself recently bought a retirement home in the Village.
Suburban town houses were rare then, often equated with poor central-city neighborhoods. Clarence Kettler decided to relocate the row house concept to greener pastures, to give it cachet.
He wasn't planning in a vacuum. About 1961, to accommodate the projected population explosion, Montgomery planners adopted a "wedges and corridors" concept designed to target growth along existing transportation arteries leading out from Washington. By concentrating growth along the asphalt spine of I-70S (later I-270), and building up the existing towns of Rockville, Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg, planners hoped to preserve the rural character of northern Montgomery.
"All the talk about smart growth today kind of amuses me," said Jim Kettler, 41, who took over as president of Kettler Brothers Homes from his father, Clarence, in 1992. "My dad and his brothers were talking about this concept in 1960."
That was when the Kettler family quietly began to put together parcels around rural Gaithersburg, a town of about 7,500 people.
By 1965, when the Kettlers had amassed nearly 2,000 acres of farmland at a cost of about $6 million, they approached the county planning board with a design for their "edge city." The build-out over 20 years was projected to house 30,000 by 1985.
It was the planning board's new Town Sector Zone that allowed Montgomery Village to become what it is, clusters of garden apartments, town houses, rental and high-rise units across the street from detached houses.
Land was set aside for schools. The developers agreed to build several large county collector roads, but all residential streets were designated private roads to be privately maintained.
"Instead of the standard 36 feet required for a county subdivision street, ours were 24 feet wide," Jim Kettler said. "This allowed us to cluster houses, have some zero lot lines and in some cases connect neighborhoods by a system of paths, instead of concrete sidewalks." Montgomery Village was also one of the first large communities to limit visual clutter by burying utilities and to build tunnels so schoolchildren could avoid traffic on the main roads.
In contrast to older, central-city neighborhoods, suburban subdivisions typically were strictly segregated by income bracket and housing styles. Retail and restaurants were rarely within walking distance. Montgomery Village tried to change all that by planning for everything: six elementary schools, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a golf course, four community centers, seven pools, a 23-acre man-made lake, public library, grocery stores and even its own mega-mall, Lakeforest Mall, on its fringes.
"County planners realized my dad's company was in this project for the long haul," Jim Kettler said. They realized "we would shepherd every stage of development, and so the new Town Zone cut the company a lot of slack," Kettler said.
"Kettler built 75 percent of the Village without the public hearing process or any input from citizen associations that would be required today," said Peter Christian, executive vice president of the Montgomery Village Foundation and a Kettler employee for 16 years. "There was no one out here to complain when they started."
If Montgomery Village was a pioneering attempt at a new way of life, some would contend it has failed. Much of the county north of Bethesda and the I-270 spur is today a nightmarish parking lot for six hours a day as workers ferrying to jobs in the closer-in suburbs, the District or Virginia refuse to relinquish their cars for the daily commute. "Ideally, high-density housing should be down-county or in Washington, close to transportation and other services," the planning board's Mellander said.
James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere" and "Home From Nowhere," says that "all these so-called planned communities are nothing but giant automobile utopias left over from the Sixties."
In contrast, he admires what developers of nearby Kentlands are trying to do by mixing retail and residential on main streets, as part of the New Urbanist school of thinking. Even open green space and cul-de-sacs that lead nowhere can be deceptively wrong-headed, Kunstler said. "We need to go back to the idea of organic, living villages, not isolated housing pods with no connection to a larger world."
Montgomery Village did try to pioneer something of the New Urbanist idea when it first opened and built a Village Quarter, mixing ethnic food stores and quaint shops in the same quad as residential units. Just as happened in the early days of Reston, people declined to buy the housing units, and the area had to be reconfigured into something more traditionally suburban.
But the Village was revolutionary in the way it has mixed income classes and races, most of the time peacefully. In its earliest days, Montgomery Village was largely middle class and white; today it is a "mini-U.N.," said Sharon Cranford, who together with her husband, John, and their two teenage children has called the Whetstone neighborhood home since June 1989. She likes the fact that the children can bike to school while she can jog to the dry cleaners, a bank or to pick up some bagels.
"The suburbs get a bad rap. People find it hard to believe but we're not that homogeneous," Cranford said. There are multi-generational families here; condominiums for $50,000 down the street, rental apartments and single-family homes selling for more than $400,000. "The Village is not segregated by age or class."
In 1975, Montgomery County required builders of subdivisions of 50 units or more to set aside 15 percent of the units for moderate-income residents. "But mistakes were made early on," Jim Kettler said, with too many Moderately Priced Dwelling Units clustered in the same neighborhood rather than sprinkled around the development. At one point in the early 1980s, tensions--some of them racial--flared between renters and homeowners over noise, upkeep and other issues. Eventually, some of the units were converted to co-ops or condos, and renters were given first-choice to buy or relocate.
In the early days the eight-person, non-elected Montgomery Village Foundation ruled with something of an iron hand, deciding aesthetic codes, architectural issues and writing restrictive covenants into housing deeds and leases. In one 1978 case, foundation zoning inspectors notified 1,475 residents that their storm doors did not meet regulations and politely urged them to conform or face legal action.
The Kettlers have not had a vote on the foundation for at least a decade. "You still can't paint your front door purple, build a tree fort in your front lawn or park a truck overnight within sight of the neighbors," said Frank Bond, vice-president of Kettler Brothers and part of the team since 1976. That's because the resident-run board kept many of the original covenants, deciding they boosted property values.
Today, 10 homeowner associations and six condominium associations work out rules about streets, lighting, leaf and snow removal and security. The foundation, now a citizen board elected at large, manages Montgomery Village's seven pools, baseball diamonds, tennis courts, four community centers and sailing, fishing and canoeing at Lake Whetstone, a 23-acre man-made lake around which many of the most expensive homes were built in the late 1960s.
Montgomery Village has three undeveloped parcels that may yet be developed, as residential or mixed residential-commercial. One 10-acre site, originally set aside for a school, has been deeded back to Kettler Brothers by the county. Another 10-acre site was the tree farm--poplars, pines, oaks and hollies--for Montgomery Village's own landscaping. Both parcels are now owned by Kettler family friend and financier Frank Ewing. Their final zoning status has yet to be decided.
The third parcel is a one-acre piece near the entrance to the village. A plan to locate a Rite-Aid drugstore there sparked a contentious debate. So far, the area remains a calm island of green.
Paranoid Push to the Suburbs;
I-270 Corridor Grew as Companies Fled Ground Zero
Take the Cold War. Add Interstate 270, with its ever-widening tentacles. To this combination of global paranoia and asphalt add America's love affair with the automobile and obsession with open space. Throw in a shortage of affordable houses in a booming local economy, and you have some of the social and demographic factors that collided in the early 1960s to fuel suburban growth around the country and make Montgomery Village, the largest planned community north of Washington, a reality.
In the late 1950s federal planners decided it would be smart to move major federal scientific and technical agencies at least 20 miles away from the White House and Washington's nuclear fast-fry zone.
From 1956 to 1963, as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's national highway system, what now is Interstate 270 was built to connect Interstate 70 with Frederick, Md., and the Washington suburbs to the south. Defense contractors and others with government business were prodded to look outside the city for office space.
Among the first employers to go was the Atomic Energy Commission, which relocated in 1959 to the I-270 corridor near a tiny hamlet called Germantown. It stood virtually alone until late 1966, when the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, made the move north, to Gaithersburg.
In the early 1960s Gaithersburg was "the edge of civilization. Beyond that, 'there be dragons and things,' " said Deane Mellander, zoning coordinator for Montgomery County.
But it also was just a short hop across I-270 from the recently approved planned new town of Montgomery Village. By 1977 more than 3,000 workers would commute to the site, most from nearby homes.
International Business Machines Corp., Comsat, Bechtel Corp. and other companies soon joined the rush to Montgomery and now their office buildings line the I-270 science and technology corridor like so many battleships. The opening of Metro's Shady Grove station in the early 1980s fueled more growth. From 1984 to 1995 the population of the area including Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg grew to 174,800 from 89,239, according to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. This translated into about 40,000 new housing units up-county in the same period.
Today about 38,000 people call Montgomery Village home. Executives at Kettler Brothers, the community's developers, say while Metro and the MARC train to Union Station offer workers greater commuting flexibility, about 40 percent of Village residents still work along the I-270 corridor.
CAPTION: Geese wander the rolling hills of Montgomery Village, where the last parcel owned by the original developer, Kettler Brothers Homes, went to settlement in September. Below, Jim Kettler, the firm's president.