The Montgomery County Council signed off Tuesday on the final pieces of a long-debated project that is supposed to bring jobs, housing and economic vitality to the county’s economically struggling eastern sector.
The council voted 8 to 1 to sell 110 acres where a sludge-processing facility once stood to the developer Percontee, which owns adjoining property near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, next to the Food and Drug Administration campus.
The developer will build a “life sciences” town center — called Viva White Oak — that would feature a hub of medical and science companies and attract FDA workers as well as employees and visitors to the Washington Adventist Hospital facility being built nearby.
The council also approved the sale of $47 million in general obligation bonds to finance road and intersection improvements around the site.
Detailed sketch plans still face review by the Montgomery County Planning Board. But Tuesday’s action sets in motion the major elements of a venture that supporters believe could generate 10,000 new jobs over 25 years in an area that has never shared in the prosperity enjoyed by other parts of the county.
“I think this is a great day for us,” said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), adding that for the Eastern County, the project comes after “years and years and years of nothing.”
But it could be many years — if at all — before the area, home to some of the Montgomery’s highest-poverty census tracts, begins to reap the benefits of Viva White Oak. The health of the global and national economy as well as the potential impact of the Trump administration on federal spending, are critical factors.
“This is a big leap of faith,” said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). “We want to make an area of the county into something that it isn’t today.”
The agreement started in 2014 as a joint venture in which the county and Percontee would share the risks and benefits of building the life sciences center. The pact nearly collapsed when county attorneys discovered that Percontee’s property came with covenants — agreements forged in the 1950s and 1960s with surrounding property owners — that limited construction. Leggett pushed instead to sell the county’s land to the developer, severing the county from the partnership to protect taxpayers from any potential lawsuits over covenant violations.
The acreage was appraised at $42 million but will be sold to Percontee for $10 million. The land’s remaining $32 million in value will be converted into a county loan to Percontee. The county will forgive portions of the loan as the company meets certain conditions, such as the construction of roads and schools and payment of transportation-impact taxes, collecting any remaining loan principal after 10 years.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who negotiated the agreement, says an unconventional approach was needed to jump-start economic development in an area that had not attracted investment on its own.
Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) voted against the land sale, saying the pact lacked “staging” provisions to keep construction from overwhelming roads and other infrastructure. He also said that the deal allowed Percontee to build too much housing and not enough commercial space in the early phases.
“When the county was a partner, we had some control. Now that’s gone,” Elrich said in a text message after the vote.
Later Tuesday, the council was briefed on the results of an audit evaluating the county’s response to the gas explosion and fire at the Flower Branch apartment complex in Silver Spring in August, which killed seven and left 170 people homeless.
The county’s Office of Internal Audit gave officials generally high marks. But it recommended that in the future the county activate its emergency operations center for such incidents to help with interagency communications. The center is usually used for blizzards and other countywide emergencies.
After the meeting, council member Tom Hucker (D-Silver Spring) expressed disappointment with the report, calling it a “lost opportunity.”
Hucker, who represents the area where the fire occurred, said that emergency shelters did not have enough Spanish-speaking staff and that council members were frequently excluded from key meetings.
“Council members had to go to press conferences to find out what was happening,” Hucker said.