Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Open forum: ‘Leggett’s Folly’ threatens the New Urbanism and Gaithersburg

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County Executive Ike Leggett’s ill-conceived plan to despoil the nation’s first and most successful non-resort New Urbanist community by dumping heavy industrial uses and hazardous operations in the former National Geographic Society headquarters tract at its center is one of the most counterproductive and foolhardy proposals to come from the county bureaucracy in recent memory. I propose we call it ‘‘Leggett’s Folly.”

Leggett’s plan first came to light in outline form in the Dec. 3, 2007, State of the County address, and then was released in written form on Dec. 6. It has ignited a firestorm of opposition. And well it should. Led by the citizens of the neotraditional pedestrian-friendly and motor vehicle-hostile Kentlands, the citizens and homeowners associations of the Kentlands-Lakelands and North Potomac areas are mobilizing to oppose this awful concept.

The plan

The plan in ‘‘Leggett’s Folly” is to buy or take by eminent domain this huge parcel, which is at the center of the New Urbanist sector of Gaithersburg. Then the county will convert it into a motor vehicle-dependent, anti-pedestrian heavy industrial zone in violation of both the existing zoning and the master plan of the city in which it is located, Gaithersburg.

Currently called GE Tech Park, the tract is one of the former headquarters of National Geographic Society. It is 98.8 acres (about 80 percent buildable) of rolling hills, fields, forests, and lakes, with the former National Geographic Society building, a landmark International Style headquarters office building that overlooks Lake Placid and a beautiful park-like lawn that stretches from the lake to Darnestown Road.

What the county is proposing in ‘‘Leggett’s Folly” is shocking — taking industrial facilities out of industrial districts and plopping them in a hitherto bucolic setting in a densely populated mixed-use urban and residential area surrounded on all sides by parks, a middle school, and beautiful neighborhoods. Obnoxious uses would be immediately adjacent to schoolyards, parks and neighborhoods.

The county’s bizarre idea is to locate not only the county police and fire department headquarters on the site (including its Major Crimes Division), but to remove the District 1 police headquarters from Rockville, which it serves, to Gaithersburg, which is in another police district, along with the Public Service Training Academy, a heliport, the board of elections, the Department of Homeland Security, a public service training gym, a firing range, and the liquor control department and warehouses, and a new 70,000-square-foot factory for the production and distribution of meals and packaged food for the entire Montgomery County Public Schools system.

Supposedly, the fire tower, burn building, and motor vehicle training tracks will be located elsewhere (in Poolesville, about 20 miles away), but the opposition of the public safety agencies to splitting its training programs all but guarantees that these dangerous and obnoxious uses will be placed on the property. This guarantees that sirens and the noise of helicopters, the smells and sounds of a factory, and the rumble of heavy trucks will become the predominant feature of this hitherto award-winning and internationally recognized pioneering community.

I am a former county employee who received training at the Public Service Training Academy in Rockville while I lived in Silver Spring. While the PSTA was not too inconvenient, I can tell you that it would have been better for me and for my colleagues had the PSTA been located at a more central location somewhere near the middle of the county. It would have been even more convenient if public transportation been available and convenient. Kentlands, Lakelands, and North Potomac do not exactly qualify as the most convenient location for most county residents and employees.

Location and accessibility to public transit are even more important (and more in keeping with county planning policies) today, when we are seeing gasoline prices skyrocketing and the cost of living going up, while county fiscal restraints keep salary increases modest.

Even more important is that the costs for this grandiose plan have not even been made public. These tight times require fiscal restraint, not reckless tax-and-spend visionary building program (with very myopic vision, to boot).

Master plans and zoning don’t matter to county

Local residents are justifiably alarmed that county staffers have emphasized that they are not bound by Gaithersburg zoning laws (which currently specifically prohibit this kind of public use) or Gaithersburg’s adopted master plan, which envisions the existing small scale warehouses as disappearing and being replaced by a pedestrian-friendly mixed use office⁄commercial⁄residential area that would complement Kentlands, Lakelands, and North Potomac. The most the county is willing to do is show any plans to the city after they have been essentially finalized in the spirit of ‘‘comity” or ‘‘courtesy.” That’s like the captain of a firing squad giving a person about to be executed the ‘‘courtesy” of a last cigarette.

County staffers have, rather disingenuously, said that there are ‘‘no current plans” for additional uses, but recognizing that the tract can hold many more industrial uses than they are currently proposing, have said in the same breath they ‘‘we won’t rule anything out.

Some expansions are likely to come quickly. The proposed liquor, beer and wine warehouse and delivery operation will not take up all the existing warehouse space, so other industrial uses that have yet to be identified are likely to be located there. The proposed new 70,000-square-foot food factory and packaging plant is planned only for the current capacity of Montgomery County schools. Plans are already in the works to expand that factory by better than 50 percent as the rapidly expanding school system grows larger.

Moreover, the entire ‘‘Leggett’s Folly” facility is likely to be fenced off from the surrounding area for security reasons, cutting off the neighborhoods from the proposed Gaithersburg Aquatic and Recreation Center on Edison Park Drive, the lakes, lawns, and walkways of the existing former National Geographic campus.

One interesting fact is that the campus, which was annexed from the county a few decades ago, was placed in a zoning category that most closely mirrored the existing county zone for the tract, the C-P zone. Had the campus remained in the county, except for a general exclusion that (quite conveniently) allows the county to build anything it wants anywhere it wants, the uses the county is currently proposing for this bucolic tract would not be permitted under the county’s zoning.

Mind-boggling attack on New Urbanism

It is, quite frankly, mind-boggling that the county executive and his staff believe that noxious and motor vehicle-oriented heavy industry and dangerous uses should be placed (and fenced) in the heart of the prettiest, most desirable, and best-planned new urbanist communities in the county. It is beyond belief that the county’s oft-expressed support for new urbanist design goals of Gaithersburg and the state and its own goals for pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, mixed-use neotraditional communities should be ignored in Gaithersburg and North Potomac.

Kentlands and its surrounding neighborhoods have given Gaithersburg and Montgomery County a place of honor in the world of rational planning and development and the planning and development successes that have taken place here have been recognized, honored, and emulated across the world. Current plans for this community include an intensification of its pedestrian-friendly downtown to make it into a transit-oriented small city center.

This dreadful ‘‘Leggett’s Folly” project will, if it comes to pass, have a disastrous impact on not just the Kentlands and not just Gaithersburg and North Potomac, but the entire state, nation and world, which have looked to this community as the best example so far of what can be done through rational planning with developers of good will on what was essentially a Greenfield.

If the county’s wretched proposal for the National Geographic tract becomes a reality, Gaithersburg and Montgomery County will become a laughingstock. Gaithersburg and Montgomery County will become the prime example of how to despoil a well-planned community — the epitome of what not to do.

Moreover, to add insult to injury, this absurd project would make valuable taxable land into a non-taxable county reserve. It would have a very negative impact on Gaithersburg’s municipal balance sheet, because the potential tax receipts from a properly developed campus would help to maintain Gaithersburg’s high level of services and shield it from economic downturns. So Gaithersburg would take a huge financial hit while its (and the county’s) signature new urbanism successes — successes that have been the subject of international acclaim and media coverage across the world – and which have been emulated everywhere are undermined.

What to do?

If the present locations scattered around the county are not suitable for appropriate expansion and modernization, then locations should be found that fit in with the communities they serve and in which they are located rather than concentrating obnoxious uses in inappropriate locations where they can poison whole communities. Heavy industrial uses should be placed in areas already zoned for heavy industry or those that can be rezoned for industry without adversely affecting surrounding neighborhoods and town centers.

If the county executive and his staff can’t be convinced of the absurdity of their abysmal and destructive proposal, then they should be educated not only by the citizens of the communities and local planning organizations, but by the members of the County Council, Montgomery County legislative delegation, the state planning and transportation departments, local publications, and the public at large.

This foolish ‘‘Leggett’s Folly” plan must and will be stopped before it ruins one of the best planned and most beautiful communities in Maryland, if not the country and the world, and adversely impacts the entire west side of the county.

Richard Arkin, Gaithersburg

The writer is a former chairman of the Rockville Planning Commission and a former president of the Maryland Citizen Planners Association, the state association of planning officials. He is also former president and former chairman of the Kentlands Citizens Assembly and a former Kentlands Community Foundation officer. He currently chairs the Gaithersburg Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and the Citizens Alliance for Planning Excellence, and is a member of the Action Committee for Transit. He is a lawyer for a federal regulatory agency.