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Suburb’s 30-year growth plan fuels debate over denser development

In Montgomery County, Md., debate over Thrive 2050 has centered on where and how much the Washington suburb should develop

Opponents of making it easier to build duplexes, triplexes and other “missing middle” housing in Montgomery County neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes protest outside the Montgomery planning board’s offices in Wheaton. (Katherine Shaver /The Washington Post)
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When Montgomery County last wrote a long-range growth plan, the Washington suburb was a predominantly White bedroom community with ample open land, single-family homes full of couples with children and wide roads designed for auto-centric lifestyles.

More than 50 years later, the county has its own job centers, a shortage of smaller and more affordable homes, and little land left to build on, planners say. Meanwhile, its residents, who have become more racially and economically diverse, are stuck in traffic congestion, facing climate change and more likely to live alone.

A new growth plan, expected to be approved Tuesday by the Montgomery County Council, grapples with how a mostly built-out suburb of 1.1 million residents should absorb another 200,000 newcomers expected over the next 30 years. The plan acknowledges massive demographic shifts in a county struggling with how to better compete for businesses and jobs while becoming more walkable, transit-friendly and environmentally sustainable.

The 126-page plan, known as Thrive 2050, would guide decisions around land use, transportation and public infrastructure in Maryland’s most populous county for years to come. Planners say it codifies the county’s long-standing practice to use land and infrastructure most efficiently by focusing more compact development around transit lines, major roads and activity centers.

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The plan also encourages construction of smaller and less expensive homes — including duplexes, cottages and small apartment buildings — that planners say are badly needed throughout the county. More of such housing in wealthier and highly desirable neighborhoods zoned solely for single-family homes would make the county and its schools less segregated by race and income, planners say.

“This is not the Montgomery County from the 1960s,” said Tanya Stern, the county’s acting planning director. “Even without Thrive, this county will continue to change. The opportunity with Thrive is to articulate a vision and a set of priorities and policies that can influence and direct those changes. … We don’t have the option of doing nothing.”

The plan has ignited fierce debate over where denser development should occur and whether more of it would improve or diminish the suburban lifestyle many residents cherish. Critics say the county’s clogged roads and crowded schools show its poor record of ensuring that public infrastructure keeps pace with private growth.

Higher-density development, opponents say, would increase traffic and school enrollment, require that more trees be cut down and cause environmentally damaging storm water to run off more pavement. While planners have emphasized that Thrive itself would not change zoning, opponents say it would open the door to relaxing single-family home zoning by calling for more housing types countywide.

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“This sets the foundation for densification in different parts of the county,” said Silver Spring resident Alan Bowser, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a coalition of homeowner and civic associations.

Bowser and other critics say the plan doesn’t ensure that developers who take advantage of higher densities would build more truly affordable housing.

“That should be a priority,” he said.

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Thrive has been debated for more than three years, but drew attention in recent weeks as the council finalized the details amid scandals that led to the resignations of the county’s entire five-member planning board. The board had unanimously approved the draft of Thrive sent to the council in April 2021.

Some opponents, including Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), have called on the council to postpone its vote on Thrive until investigations conclude into allegations concerning some board members’ ethics. However, Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) has said the plan has had ample public vetting and needs to be approved without delay.

Planners say Thrive is the first comprehensive rewrite of the county’s original “Wedges and Corridors” plan of 1964, which focused higher-density growth along major roads while preserving land in between for open space, farming and neighborhoods. The plan was updated in 1969 and refined in 1993.

Planners say Thrive would be the county’s first long-term plan to prioritize racial equity and social justice, including by encouraging less expensive housing in upscale areas. Doing so, planners say, would help reverse the de facto segregation that remains in many areas because of previous discriminatory policies, such as redlining and restrictive racial covenants.

“Communities where wealthy White residents are the norm also have to achieve integration and inclusivity,” the plan says.

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Thrive also would correct a mistake made among the changes in 1993, planners say, when local officials asked that the Route 29 corridor be left as mostly residential. That directed growth to the Interstate 270 corridor and areas around the Capital Beltway, such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, while discouraging investment in the lower-income eastern county, including along Metro’s Red Line and Georgia Avenue.

The eastern county, planners wrote, “became relatively less attractive for employers and residents, feeding a cycle of stagnation.” The new plan would encourage more development there.

Most of the tension has centered on how and where to build more housing.

Montgomery planners, and council members who have supported Thrive, say it would encourage building more homes of all types, from subsidized housing for the poor to starter homes for millennials and smaller options for downsizing baby boomers. It also recommends expanding county programs and regulatory incentives to encourage construction of market rate and below-market rate housing at all income levels, especially near transit lines.

“We take an ‘everything and all-of-the-above’ approach,” Stern said.

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Opponents say planners and council members have dismissed their concerns that too much dense development would strain schools, road capacity, fire and police protection and storm water management systems. Some say residents haven’t been able to focus on the potential problems while the plan has been hashed out during the pandemic.

“I think there’s a rush to approve this plan to push the idea that the county is open for business,” Bowser said.

Montgomery council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who chaired the committee that scrutinized the plan, said he disagrees, saying Thrive has had “robust public participation.”

The kind of growth that Thrive promotes, he said, is the same compact, walkable, transit-oriented development that planners and public officials have advocated for years. He noted the popularity of Pike & Rose, a mix of shops, restaurants, high-rise apartments and offices that opened in 2014 on the site of a former strip mall and large parking lot in North Bethesda.

“What’s their solution?” Riemer said of the plan’s critics. “They want people to stop having children or put up a wall around the county? Thrive doesn’t cause growth to happen. It seeks to manage the growth that’s coming.”

Some critics say county officials haven’t paid enough attention to other potential consequences of denser development, such as how it can price out some residents by driving up land values and property taxes. Others have said home buyers will be left bidding against investors with a financial incentive to tear down single homes to build more units.

Some opponents, including Elrich, say Thrive also won’t do enough to solve the county’s biggest problem: a shortage of homes for its poorest residents. Developers won’t build more housing for lower-wage workers, he said, unless they are required to.

He said the county’s current zoning allows for enough new housing to accommodate future residents. But developers won’t build new apartments, townhouses and other homes until they can command higher prices — something that won’t happen until surrounding areas have more workers with higher-paying jobs, Elrich said.

Higher-density zoning, he said, won’t provide more affordable housing while the county works to attract more employers.

“If people want to build in areas zoned for high-rise buildings, and it costs them $500 or $600 per square foot to build a unit, you’re not going to get a solution to affordable housing that way,” Elrich said. “Fixing this is more complex than just saying it’s a zoning problem.”

Stern, the acting planning chief, said Thrive makes more deeply affordable housing “very much a priority” and recommends “a wide variety of strategies” to encourage more of it. She said Montgomery suffers more from its concentrations of poverty than from lower-income residents being displaced by new development.

“The reality is that housing is a fundamental part of economic development,” Stern said. “It’s very difficult to attract more jobs if you don’t have housing available for those new workers to be able to afford to live in.”