The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Montgomery can do more than spout platitudes on climate and walkability

The White Flint Mall area in North Bethesda in 2018. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Karine Jegalian is a science writer in Garrett Park.

Many Montgomery County residents pride themselves on living in a progressive place. Our county government has a Climate Action Plan that promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2027 and 100 percent by 2035. Looking around at the ever-bigger SUVs that dominate the roads, you’d think this seems an implausible goal. Because transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in this country, you’d imagine Montgomery County must be engaged in a massive effort to encourage walking and biking for transportation. And in another ambitious initiative, the county government has promised zero pedestrian and biker fatalities by the end of 2030. But if anything, we seem to be going backward.

Thousands of residents who live roughly within a mile of me in Garrett Park previously were able to cut through a small local park, over perhaps 100 feet of sidewalk that remains near the ruins of the former White Flint Mall, to a shopping center on Nicholson Lane, and from there to points beyond. People who don’t drive were able to use the path to go grocery shopping and run errands. Some people biked or walked to a Metro stop. Others walked to their jobs in government offices using this quiet and safe route rather than having to brave being inches from traffic in blazing heat on Rockville Pike. Teenagers were able to walk to summer jobs. People who dropped their cars off for maintenance could take a short, safe route home. Some neighbors just enjoyed being able to go for a stroll to get a cup of coffee.

People coming from the opposite direction also used the path. A physical therapist who operates a business in White Flint Plaza was able to walk children to the neighborhood park for therapy sessions. But this year, she had to completely reconfigure her plans.

For more than a decade, those of us who live near the former White Flint Mall watched as the Lerners, who own the property, drove out businesses then tore down the mall, which they deemed faded barely 30 years after opening it. The Lerners were slowed in their efforts by a long dispute with a single holdout tenant, but when that tenant went out of business, the economic climate had changed enough that the Lerners no longer seemed interested in their previous rebuilding plans. The Lerners surrounded the property with chain-link fence and left a 45-acre abandoned lot on busy Rockville Pike. Those of us who live nearby have not complained much about this drawn-out decline, but many of us have become furious in the wake of a final insult: The Lerners have blocked the tiny segment of sidewalk that allowed us to walk out of our neighborhoods through the public park.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Once we found the footpath blocked, we complained to the Lerner corporation but found no willingness to compromise, so we reached out to the Montgomery County government. But our County Council members and the county administrator who oversees the White Flint area did not side with us. Though they initially expressed sympathy with the idea of preserving walkability, ultimately they sided with the billionaires. They synchronized their stories: The land is private property. There is nothing that can be done. The county administrator tells us our request for access to a path that had been open to us for decades is the same as “asking someone if we may create a pathway through their backyard and take on what comes with it.” What comes with it is apparently liability for the Lerners. We’re told there was a suicide late last year in the middle of the abandoned property. You might say the Lerners had created an attractive nuisance in our backyards. Before they started acting as apologists for the billionaires, we’re told county officials did make an effort. We hear they offered the Lerners the maximum indemnification allowed by state law, but the Lerners said it was not enough. And as far as the county is concerned, that is that.

The closure of the tiny segment of sidewalk adds cars to roadways, pollution to the air and takes away independence from people who don’t have cars or cannot drive — a population that is profoundly overlooked in this supposedly compassionate county.

Surely, the county could have considered alternatives rather than immediately capitulating to the billionaires. The path lies near the boundary between two separate lots owned by the Lerners, the immense former mall property and a lot where they store trucks. Many smaller property owners are subject to public right-of-way easements on the boundaries of their properties. Why not the Lerners? Perhaps the county could use its power of eminent domain to carve out a public path.

But in proudly progressive Montgomery County, the property rights of billionaires appear to be paramount and supersede the rights of thousands of residents to walk safely, of children who need physical therapy to have access to neighborhood parks and of the larger community to address climate change seriously. As one of my neighbors put it, we’re not asking for much here. We are asking for access through a fingernail-clipping equivalent of land for the Lerners to replace car trips with walking and bike trips.

If Montgomery County officials won’t stand up to powerful interests to do this one small thing, which would benefit many at so little cost to anyone else, when will they ever stand up for the common good? What will they ever get done?