Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Master plan ‘split’ irks Village residents

Johns Hopkins research campus must not be delayed, county planners say

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A move by county planners to quietly break the Gaithersburg Vicinity Master Plan into two new zones is pitting the need for progress against resident concerns over sound planning principles.

The Montgomery County Planning Board has encouraged planners to move forward with their idea to split the master plan roughly down Interstate 270.

Montgomery Village, a 40,000-resident planned community, dominates the eastern side, which also includes Washington Grove and the Montgomery County Airpark.

The western side focuses on industrial and research properties slated for major development. Among them is Johns Hopkins University’s Belward Research Campus, more than 100 acres near Shady Grove that is being hailed as a key to the future health of the county’s biotech and research industry.

A master plan is the document planners use to guide what kinds of development should go where and outline the infrastructure improvements — roads and transit projects in particular — that will be needed to accommodate growth.

The update of the Gaithersburg Vicinity Master Plan is already several years behind schedule. A major sticking point is M-83, a plan to extend Midcounty Highway north through Montgomery Village and into Germantown and Clarksburg. The controversial project has been hung up in preliminary studies for years, and county planners could not update the original Gaithersburg master plan without knowing whether M-83 would be built

So they broke off areas west of the I-270 — and a few industrial and commercial pockets just to its east — into its own zone to update the master plan for that area first, which is informally being called Gaithersburg-West.

The move has drawn outcry from residents in Montgomery Village, who say it strips them of their say on transportation and infrastructure issues that will no longer be in their master plan but will have a major impact on their quality of life.

They have the support of County Executive Isiah Leggett. Transportation and development issues in the area have historically affected both sides of I-270, he said in an interview last week, and should be considered at the same time.

‘‘To divide it now that we’re trying to look at things together is a mistake,” Leggett said.

Insisting that he is a ‘‘very strong proponent” of the Belward project, Leggett points out that it still years away from construction.

‘‘Given the lead time in that and the challenges I see ahead, I don’t think that in and of itself is justification for the split,” he said. ‘‘It’s not as if you need to make the decision tomorrow.”

Before the split, the master plan covered 15,000 acres including Montgomery Village, Washington Grove and parts of unincorporated Gaithersburg — shaped roughly like a donut around NIST, with residential, commercial and industrial pockets strewn throughout. It does not apply to the City of Gaithersburg, which has its own planning authority.

And it is not actually a ‘‘split.”

Working from the 1985 Gaithersburg master plan, the county spliced off a planning area around Shady Grove in 1990 to accommodate the push for biotech and research in that area, including Belward and the Life Sciences Center.

As planners moved toward the next round of updates, the idea was to combine the areas defined in the 1990 plan back into the overall Gaithersburg-area master plan.

That began to lose planners’ favor last year, and the county Planning Board gave an informal go-ahead on April 5.

‘‘This fragmented geography ... forced together areas that have unrelated and distinct land use characteristics, that are impacted by different regional transportation projects, and that are at different stages of development,” Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson wrote in a May 18 letter to the Montgomery Village Foundation. ‘‘...The areas west of I-270 are at a point in time where a master plan update is essential.”

While the split frees up planners to update Gaithersburg-West, updating the eastern piece will be pushed back ‘‘definitely a couple years,” said Nancy Sturgeon, the county planner who first floated the idea of the split to Village residents last year.

After weeks of close scrutiny, the foundation’s board of directors came out against the split last month.

The rush to split leaves Village activist Jane Wilder, who has fought hard against M-83 for 20 years, wondering what happened to the sanctity of master plans, so often hailed as the bedrock of sound planning.

‘‘It’s just like a board game. It’s become a joke when anyone thinks of the solidity of the great master plan,” she said. ‘‘They’re completely scuttling that notion and it’s not in the best interests of the taxpayers and existing residents.”

The County Council gives master plan updates their final approval. The council’s next discussion of master plans with county planners is set for the fall, possibly in October.