Groups clamor for input on Science City'
County Council accelerates Gaithersburg West master plan schedule
County planners will not use a citizens' advisory board to help craft the blueprint for transforming 500 acres in Shady Grove into the centerpiece of Montgomery County's future in bioscience and applied research.
As the Planning Board embarks on a string of four public forums before rewriting the Gaithersburg West master plan, their apparent urgency has sparked growing outcry from civic and environmental groups, who say it has not promoted an inclusive perspective and that too much has happened in private discussions.
"The process sucks this time. It has the effect of breaking up the ability of community members who have concerns and may be in opposition to aspects of this from coming together," Diana Conway of the Western Montgomery County Civic Association said Oct. 29 after the first Gaithersburg West forum.
Conway was one of two dozen residents and business owners on the Citizen's Advisory Committee for the update to the Potomac Sub-region master plan in 2002. The advantage of an advisory group, she said, is that bringing diverse interests together can create a "very good consensus-building process."
"When you're not in the room together, it's just politics," she said. "... It protects people from having to look the other person in the eye and saying, It will be fine.'"
Master plans set the guiding principles for types and locations of land use and call for the infrastructure to support it. In the Gaithersburg West master plan, planners are focusing on 500 acres west of Interstate 270 that includes the 300-acre Shady Grove Life Sciences Center. The Life Sciences Center is already the county's largest concentration of bioscience, home to several major research and applied science firms, Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, Johns Hopkins University's Montgomery County Campus and the Universities at Shady Grove.
Hopkins and county planners, who are envisioning a cutting-edge "Science City," have hosted forums with homeowners associations and interested residents over the last eight months. But there will no Citizens' Advisory Committee because of Gaithersburg West's "scattered geography," said Valerie Berton, Planning Board spokeswoman.
The Gaithersburg West master plan is made up of enclaves dispersed from Quince Orchard to NIST to industrial areas east of I-270 to the Life Sciences Center west of the interstate, broken up by municipal areas of Gaithersburg and Rockville. County planners do not always follow the advisory model, Berton said.
Hopkins laid out its vision in a string of forums in February. But with progress on specifics getting bogged down soon after, "there's been a deafening silence from JHU since," said Dan Drazan, president of the North Potomac Citizens Association. Drazan and others want a more formal role for civic and environmental groups in the Gaithersburg West forums, if not the rewrite itself.
"Why does it have to be over the next four-five weeks?" he said. "There's a sense that this is a top-down approach, and that Johns Hopkins has been working too closely with the Planning Board" and elected officials.
Feeling pressed for time, the NPCA and the Sierra Club of Montgomery County called on planners to slow the process.
On Oct. 21, the County Council voted to accelerate the schedule by six to eight weeks. The new timeline calls for a draft to the County Planning Board in January and final approval by the County Council before the end of 2009.
County Councilman Philip M. Andrews, who has implored planners to ensure sufficient public input, encourages residents to be heard in the ongoing public forums. Given the difficult geography of Gaithersburg West, he does not object to not using an advisory committee. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg said the public can have significant input at hearings with the Planning Board (in February) and the County Council (in September).
"People can weigh in and help shape the plan that way," he said. "… It's not a done deal once it gets to the council. And it's important to be active at the beginning because they have the greatest opportunity to shape the plan, and it's better to shape it at the beginning than at the end."
County planners are hosting the second of four public forums on the Gaithersburg West master plan at 7 p.m. Thursday at 16641 Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville. It will feature presentations from property owners in the area. The other two forums are set for Nov. 12 and Dec. 2 at the same time and address.