The new master plan for White Oak does not provide enough balance between economic development, transportation improvements and environmental protection, say leaders of some Silver Spring-area civic groups.
But others say it is just fine.
A key element that was omitted from the plan that the Montgomery County Council approved July 29 is “staging,” which requires that sufficient public roads, transit and other infrastructure be coordinated with new projects, said Alan Bowser, president of the Park Hills Civic Association in Silver Spring.
He was among the leaders of civic groups to sign a letter to the council asking for staging and other protections. Others who signed the letter included Barry Wides, president of the North White Oak Civic Association, and Eileen Finnegan, president of the Hillandale Citizens Association.
“Our county master plans have staging requirements to balance new development with adequate public facilities and transportation infrastructure,” said Bowser, also a board member of Conservation Montgomery. “This one does not.”
But staging could kill the plan before it has a chance to blossom, said Dan Wilhelm, president of the Greater Colesville Citizens Association. He also is on a committee doing outreach for the White Oak plan for LabQuest, a residents group that worked to bring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters to the area.
“We need to encourage development in the community,” Wilhelm said. “We don’t want to put roadblocks in the way.”
From 1986 to 2002, White Oak was under a development moratorium as officials feared a traffic explosion along U.S. 29. If the county wanted to do something about transportation in the area, it had a lot of time to do so during those years, Wilhelm said.
Bus rapid transit is really the only effective transit infrastructure option for the White Oak area, he said. Wilhelm said he expected that to be available in four or five years, about the same time that the first part of private developer Percontee’s project could open.
“The BRT can be built fairly fast,” Wilhelm said. “You can use existing roads.”
Percontee and the county are developing what they hope will be a town center with life sciences companies, hotels, restaurants and more on a 300-acre site near the FDA headquarters on New Hampshire Avenue near U.S. 29. The land is more than 10 times the size of the area redeveloped in downtown Silver Spring.
There are other areas that officials hope to see emerge as development hubs, such as Hillandale near the Capital Beltway and New Hampshire Avenue.
County Council staff recommended staging requirements, but most council members said they were not necessary in this plan and might pose impediments to the kind of new development needed in the White Oak area. Planners have been working on the proposal for several years, driven by the FDA moving its headquarters to White Oak and the potential relocation of Washington Adventist Hospital there from Takoma Park.
Bowser said he would have liked to have seen more to address stormwater management through land use planning and design requirements to reduce stormwater runoff. The master plan also didn’t adequately address reforesting and increasing tree canopy in the area to help reduce summer temperatures and improve air quality, he said.
“I don’t think these issues were addressed,” Bowser said.
Wilhelm, who like many has served on committees that have studied the matter for several years, said he was generally happy with how the plan developed.
“There were a lot of thorny issues,” he said. “But I think [the council] came out where they needed to.”