Hanson: County needs urban model
Montgomery has outpaced suburban growth standards, planning chairman says
Montgomery County needs to adopt an urban development model to handle growth, demographic changes and a diminishing supply of developable land, Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson told the Montgomery County Civic Federation last week.
The suburban development model is less useful because suburban-style development is now a "declining component of county growth," said Hanson, who is in his second tenure as planning chairman after leading the panel in creating the Agricultural Reserve — more than 90,000 acres designated for farming and open space in the northwest third of the county — almost 30 years ago.
As planners work to create a new growth policy recommendation for the council to enact next year, Hanson says they need to rethink and reinvent the way development is planned and put less emphasis on roads because little more traffic capacity is likely to be added after the Intercounty Connector and Montrose Parkway, now under construction, are built.
Most new housing and commercial space will be added to already-developed areas, and more emphasis will have to be placed not just on expanding transit, walking and bicycling options but on increasing the productivity of those alternatives, he said.
Plans that require developers to build infrastructure for their projects have left communities, including neighborhoods in Clarksburg, unconnected and major roads clogged, he said.
To fix that, "key networks" in high-density areas need to be built before development occurs, Hanson said.
To pay for it, the county would need to borrow money and repay the bond debt with special taxes levied on property within districts that would directly benefit.
"What happens if the county takes out a bond for infrastructure and no development occurs?" said Jim Humphrey, chairman of the planning and land-use committee of the civic federation, which has taken no position on the idea with the growth policy decision still nearly a year away.
Many developers, particularly those whose portfolios feature dense mixed-use projects, support the idea as well as plans to add requirements that new development be environmentally sustainable.
"I think you'll see, if you look at what's happening at White Flint, these positions are taking place," said Rod Lawrence, a partner at the JBG Cos., which is building 400 residential units over 200,000 square feet of retail across from White Flint mall on Rockville Pike.
Recommendations for the White Flint sector plan include creating a special tax district and tax increment financing to pay for infrastructure and rebuilding the pike.
Winchester Homes, whose mainstay is single-family housing, also supports "higher density in the right locations," said senior vice president Stephen Nardella.
Time and costs of commuting and home maintenance are making big homes on big lots in the exurbs out of favor, Nardella said.
But it takes political will to make such a change, and usually surrounding communities oppose higher density, he said.
Indeed, Humphrey said he wishes Hanson and others would not assume that growth is inevitable but would consider what level of growth is appropriate and what county residents want.
Figuring that out and balancing interests is no small matter, said Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D- At-large) of Garrett Park.
"Montgomery County can't decide whether it wants to be urban or suburban," said Floreen who serves on the planning committee and leads the transportation committee.
"I think the vast majority of residents bought into a suburban lifestyle, [and] some of these planning initiatives are urban and require massive amounts of infrastructure," she said.
"The real frontier in Montgomery County is in paying for these changes," and with the economy slumping it is "not the ideal time to address that," Floreen said, although she agrees with much of what Hanson is advocating.
So does Stephen Z. Kaufman, a partner at mammoth land-use law firm Linowes and Blocher.
"Montgomery County is really a city — a linear city [and] each of these areas are neighborhoods within the city," said Kaufman, who likened Montgomery's suburbs to New York City's boroughs.
"The only issue I have is timing — you're not going to get infrastructure unless you have the ability of new projects to proceed simultaneously," Kaufman said.
"Royce sees the future as now," while many council members have never done a master plan and need to understand all the pieces, said Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, who leads the planning committee.
"By creating more density you can lessen traffic, but that's not intuitive to people," Knapp said.