Biotech builders fail to sway board
Planners will forward Gaithersburg West master plan to county officials next month
The Montgomery County Planning Board concluded work sessions on the Gaithersburg West master plan Thursday and is finalizing its version of the blueprint for a mixed-use, "urban village" research campus in Shady Grove.
The board's draft will be sent to the county executive next month, then to the County Council in the fall for final review.
During its fourth work session on Gaithersburg West, which encompasses a 4,300-acre area west of Interstate 270 but focuses on a 900-acre area around the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, the Planning Board:
-Rebuffed a request by two entities at the center of the two largest biotech proposals in the county — Johns Hopkins University at Gaithersburg West and Percontee Inc. at the White Oak consolidation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — to ease the burden of county zoning requirements;
-Laid out a series of milestones to ensure that construction of 9.5 million square feet of research, office and retail space does not outpace infrastructure improvements and construction of a proposed mass transit line that would stop in the Life Sciences Center, and;
-Decided that deed restrictions on the 107-acre Belward Farm in Gaithersburg — the prime research space in the plan — should be settled by Hopkins, descendents of the siblings that sold it to the university 20 years ago and the courts.
Because a number of factors cannot be predicted, planners will revisit the master plan after six years — rather than the usual 15 to 20 years — to review the status of the mass transit line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, and where the county stands in relocating the Public Safety Training Academy to the Webb Tract near Montgomery Village. The PSTA's current 52-acre site, off Great Seneca Highway and Key West Avenue, is where 2,000 residences, a school, fire station, park and CCT stop are planned.
Nearly the entire area will be rezoned under a revised "Life Sciences Center Zone," which would allow for a mix of research, office, retail and housing and require developers to provide green spaces and moderately priced and workforce housing.
What worried Hopkins and Percontee the most is the new zone's inclusion of the "Building Lot Termination program," or BLT, which requires developers to buy from a pool of limited "development rights" transferred from the county's Agricultural Reserve. A report that Hopkins and Percontee commissioned jointly found that the requirements would add between $77,000 and $154,000 in development costs per acre, depending on density.
Citing the higher costs of biotech construction, a chronic shortage of venture capital and a likelihood that other jurisdictions will ease their building restrictions, the report argues that the requirements "severely jeopardize" the likelihood that developers and research institutions will deem Gaithersburg West and White Oak more attractive than the growing number of regional and national competitors.
Cutting BLT requirements "may be the investment the county needs to make in order to multiply many times over the leverage to brand Montgomery County as a place for the life sciences to come, and to market it, not just, Don't go to Frederick… or Howard County,'" Jonathan Genn, executive vice president and general counsel for Percontee, told the board.
With planning staff having called such relief "a clumsy form of economic development incentive," commissioners blasted Hopkins' and Percontee's request.
"I think this board would actually be sympathetic to your making the case. You're not making the case. ... It's a poor presentation," said Commissioner John M. Robinson. "… What I'm hearing is what every businessman has been telling me since I've been on the board, and which every businessman comes in and says in every jurisdiction that wants a biotech business, or an automobile plant, or a rubber tire plant. You need to do better…"
Decades of development
The plan for Gaithersburg West ties construction totals to infrastructure improvements, especially the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed light rail or rapid bus line that would connect Shady Grove metro station and Clarksburg. However, the up to 2,000 residences envisioned for Gaithersburg West will not be subject to those milestones.
Under tight economic circumstances, planners again pushed back the expected horizon for reaching the master plan's limits — up to 9.5 million new square feet and 28,000 new jobs.
"That alone could take 47 years," said Nancy Sturgeon, Gaithersburg West's lead planner.
A more realistic scenario, she said, is a 35-year timeframe that sees the LSC built out 75 percent, equaling 7.1 million square feet of new construction and 21,000 new jobs.
Beef over Belward?
One issue that the master plan will not touch is the question of what mix of development will come to Belward.
When Elizabeth Banks and two siblings sold the farm to Hopkins for $5 million in 1989, the deed of transfer stipulated that Hopkins focus on agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care services, or related purposes only..."
Addressing the Planning Board Thursday, Banks's nephew, Timothy Newell, said that the family takes no issue with a 1996 plan for 1.4 million square feet of research and office space. The family does, however, take issue with planners' "interpretation" of the deed reflected in the draft of Gaithersburg West, which would allow up to 4.5 million square feet of construction, some of it housing.
"Now this is nothing like what we had envisioned," Newell said.
He and a family lawyer did not specify whether the family will or will not challenge the proposal, but did say that private talks with Hopkins have yet to resolve the issue.
The board moved ahead with its recommendations for Belward, deciding to let any potential dispute run its course.
"That's a job for a court, and we're not competent to make that decision. All we can do is make the zoning," said Chairman Royce Hanson.
Planners set the following requirements for development of Gaithersburg West.
The Shady Grove Life Sciences Center has 5.5 million square feet already built and 2.7 million square feet approved. Stage 1 will allow another 400,000 square feet.
Before allowing an additional 2.8 million square feet, a mass transit line must be funded for construction from the Shady Grove metro to Metropolitan Grove; relocation of the PSTA must be programmed; a network of walking trails and green spaces be funded; and planners must document a 5 percent increase in trips not taken by a driver.
Before another 1.8 million square feet can be built, the transit line must be under construction from the Shady Grove metro to Belward and be fully funded through Clarksburg; two highway interchanges (at Sam Eig and Great Seneca highways; and at Great Seneca Highway and Key West Avenue) must be funded; the county must determine the need for (and fund) an elementary school at PSTA; and planners must document a 10 percent increase in non-driver trips.
Precursors to the final 4.5 million square feet of construction envisioned in the master plan are: the transit line must be operating for its entire length; the widening of Key West Avenue must be funded; two of the highway interchanges must be finished and three others funded; planners must document a 15 percent increase in non-driver trips.
Source: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission