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New homes can coexist with environmental protection

Competing interests — environmental protection and development — are fighting it out in what will likely be Montgomery County’s last frontier: Clarksburg.

Ground Zero is a 538-acre tract west of Interstate 270. The property includes the Ten Mile Creek watershed, which feeds into Little Seneca Creek, a backup drinking water source for the region.

Pulte Homes has proposed building 1,007 housing units on the land — 704 single-family homes and 303 townhouses. The staff of the Montgomery County Planning Board has proposed cutting the project back to about 217 homes. The Save the Ten Mile Creek Coalition believe the staff report still didn’t go far enough to preserve the watershed.

Two other factors are mixing with the debate. One is the resentment of current Clarksburg residents. Many believe they haven’t gotten the amenities they were promised years ago. And the other is the possibility that the community will have separate outlet shopping malls. For a growing area that still doesn’t have a grocery store, it seems sad residents might soon instead have their choice of retail establishments for designer goods.

Pulte fired its own shot to foment the anxiety of current Clarksburg residents. In July, it released a report estimating the millions that wouldn’t be spent by new consumers if the county proceeds to scale back its plans.

“In a community like Clarksburg that is already desperate for successful retail services, it is hard to reconcile how planning staff justifies this outcome. There’s nothing in the staff report that addresses the realities of lost spending and lost jobs, which are absolutely essential to the vitality of Clarksburg,” wrote Lewis Birnbaum, president of Pulte’s mid-Atlantic division.

The Clarksburg residents would no doubt respond that they were promised retail services long before Pulte’s plan entered the fray.

The matter is now before the five-member Planning Board. The board a hearing scheduled for Sept. 10. Work sessions will follow, and a decision is to be sent to the County Council in October. The council still has to vote on an update to the master plan, which might not happen until next spring.

Although the supporters of more restrictive development won’t agree, the Pulte plan has merits. For one, the plan follows land-use guides written in the 1994 master plan. Protecting the environment was as strong a motivator then as it is now, and the authors considered development and preservation to produce a master plan that serves both.

Of the 538 acres, about 240 acres of that is forest. Pulte says about 167 acres of forest will be preserved. About 87 acres of open space will be reforested. Which means after development, there could be more trees on the property. Their plans spell out efforts to preserve streams, including environmental site design to address stormwater runoff.

A secondary merit to the plan is that it provides much-needed housing. Montgomery lacks sufficient affordable housing — a look at the flow of commuter traffic out of Frederick County demonstrates that. Following county regulations, the Pulte plan adds 126 moderately priced dwelling units to the county’s housing stock.

Finally, the plan has merit because Pulte followed the rules. The builder used the 1994 master plan as a guide to proceed. The company purchased TDRs — the transfer of development rights, reducing the development of one tract to increase development elsewhere. What Pulte needs now is the reliability that the county will stick to a master plan, even one that was drafted 19 years ago.

The Planning Board should proceed with its hearings and work sessions. It will hear that Pulte can build its homes and preserve the area’s unique environmental concerns. The board should then recommend the council give its blessings to the project. Residents will see that environmental protection and new housing do not have to be mutually exclusive.