Slower growth on county’s horizon

Voters choose a new executive and council to answer concerns about housing and congestion

Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006

The new slate of County Council members and the newly elected county executive are likely to be focused on slowing the growth in Maryland’s largest jurisdiction.

But political insiders say the new, all-Democratic leadership group is not as dramatic a shift as has been portrayed by some.

Both executive-elect Isiah ‘‘Ike” Leggett and the new council members have pledged to revisit the county’s growth policy, slowing development while county services, roads and schools are added to meet the burgeoning population, projected to top 1 million by the final year of Leggett’s four-year term.

Leggett, a former county councilman and state Democratic Party chairman, capitalized on his popularity and consensus-building reputation to handily defeat Republican Charles R. ‘‘Chuck” Floyd and independent Robin Ficker.

Leggett, 61, succeeds Douglas M. Duncan (D), whose 12-year tenure was distinguished by friendly relations with county developers and several major commercial and residential construction projects, including the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring and construction of the county’s conference center and Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda.

Leggett is also tapping the knowledge of two former county executives, Democrats Sidney Kramer and Neal Potter, as honorary chairmen of his transition team. Kramer was considered a pro-business executive while Potter was known for his slow-growth stance.

Two newly elected council members, Maryland National Organization of Women President Duchy Trachtenberg and Takoma Park City Councilman Marc Elrich, won their council seats with slow-growth campaigns.

They join incumbents Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton and Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg as slow-growthers.

‘‘The change is more a change in emphasis. There is no obvious overturn in the county’s old regime like there is at the state level. There is no party change, just switching from one type of Democrat to another,” said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University and a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate this year. ‘‘This is just a change in priorities. This is not a council or executive that is to the development and business communities.”

Looking ahead

The pledge for slower growth hinges on economic factors such as the demand for jobs and affordable housing, which may be beyond the control of the council and county executive, Lichtman said.

‘‘The economy slows up and down well beyond our borders. We’re in a regional, national and global economy. Regardless of who gets elected, when things slow down, they are going to slow down,” said Georgette ‘‘Gigi” Godwin, interim president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber endorsed Leggett’s challenger, Steven A. Silverman, in September’s Democratic primary. During his two council terms, Silverman became known for his introduction of and votes on pro-development legislation. After Silverman’s defeat in the primary, the chamber endorsed Leggett in the general election.

Despite his growth policy, Godwin said the chamber is looking forward to working with Leggett and the new County Council.

‘‘The growth changes don’t happen immediately even if policy changes are immediate because there is already so much in the pipeline,” said former county councilwoman Gail Ewing. ‘‘We could see big change in the next 10 to 15 years.”

In the meantime, Leggett and the council are poised to revisit issues such as the environment and health and human services, which received some attention during the Duncan administration, but were not among its priorities.

‘‘There were some environmental issues raised [during the previous administration] regarding the Agricultural Reserve and with green building legislation. I certainly expect more focus on the environment now because of the composition of the new council,” said Anne Ambler, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Sierra Club.

Ambler would like the council to review the transportation policy to include more mass transit and enact more legislation to protect trees.

The outgoing council is reviewing legislation proposed by council President George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park to require environmentally friendly buildings, and recently passed a proposal by outgoing Councilman Howard A. Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase to protect the county’s oldest and largest trees.

‘‘Just as the council did four years ago when there were a number of new council members, this council can do the same thing and get a lot done,” said Lichtman, a Bethesda resident and a former columnist for The Gazette.

‘‘Sometimes new members are emboldened to try new things. Some of the engine of movement may come from more aggressive council members like Duchy, Elrich and [Roger] Berliner [an energy attorney who defeated Denis for the District 1 seat],” Lichtman said.

Concerns about leadership

Some critics have said the learning curve of the council members along with the methodical leadership style of Leggett could result in a leadership quagmire.

Since the beginning of the campaign, Leggett has been cautious, even evasive about detailing his specific plans for the county’s next four years, whereas Duncan had a reputation for making decisive statements.

But those criticisms are easily handled by the council’s calendar, said Praisner, who is expected to be the next council president in December, a position she held twice before.

‘‘There are things we have to get done and can’t ignore like the operating budget, appointments to the Planning Board and finding more creative ways to produce affordable housing,” she said.

The council will be helped by its single-party alignment, and by Democratic leaders throughout the state, including the governor and the county’s congressional delegation. But with an all-blue county, outside opinions and ideas are sacrificed, said Ewing, a political science professor at Montgomery County.

‘‘It’s a shame that we don’t have more of a contest in the general election and that the party is not as organized and able to recruit better candidates,” she said. ‘‘Especially with a Republican governor for the last four years, you would have thought they would have had better people competing.”