Council rejects changes to the county’s growth policy

Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2005

In a surprise move Tuesday, the County Council rejected a proposal to regulate the county’s growth, leaving in place the controversial plan it approved two years ago.

The council’s 5-4 vote reversed the stance it had taken Monday in 6-3 straw vote to endorse a plan that would have sent planners back to the drawing board to find better methods of ensuring that roads and transit keep pace with development.

That means new development approvals will continue to concentrate on traffic congestion at local intersections rather than also considering wider-area traffic pressures. Council members eliminated the wider area studies in 2003, complaining that the process was inconsistent and duplicative.

‘‘I have a concern about sending a message to the community that we have a simple document that manages growth in this community when no document can do that,” council President Thomas E. Perez said Tuesday.

The county’s growth policy does not adequately account for the impact on schools, Perez (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park said. Schools are allowed to exceed real capacity, yet the school impact test is set ‘‘so everyone passes,” he said.

The Montgomery County Civic Federation contends that the proposed revisions would have made only minor improvements in a seriously flawed growth policy and that stronger measures are needed.

‘‘We’ve had enough time to see that without capacity ceilings we have no way to pace growth in the county and to direct it to areas where it can best be accommodated,” said Jim Humphrey, chairman of the Civic Federation’s Planning and Land Use Committee.

Without strict limits on growth, the Planning Board has only ‘‘flawed school and road capacity tests” to manage development, Humphrey said. Because developments usually can pass those tests, the board cannot disapprove them, he said.

Approving the revised plan would have acknowledged that the council’s decision in 2003 to rely on local traffic studies to gauge congestion and stage development has failed.

The failed resolution would have opened the door to adding back regional traffic effects in the formulas that the county uses for controlling development.

Now there is no change unless the Planning Board adopts new growth caps.

Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park voted against changing the policy along with Perez, Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg and Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton.

Council members opposed the change for different reasons.

‘‘We need to give the rules in place more time to evolve before we start revising things without significant staff analysis and public input,” Floreen said.

‘‘I woke up this morning and said that the policy includes promises that we don’t intend to deliver,” she said. ‘‘I voted against [amendments included in the policy] before ... and think the current policy is not broken.”

She said she contacted some of her colleagues Tuesday morning about her decision.

Knapp, who said he was one of the people Floreen talked with, discussed his plans to change his vote with her.

‘‘This should have been a 20-minute discussion,” he said. ‘‘We continue to perpetuate the discussion of growth versus nongrowth on these issues, and I don’t want to do that any more.”

Praisner said she opposed eliminating the wider area studies in 2003, but voted against the proposed changes because she still has concerns about its usefulness.

The rejected proposal would have required the Planning Board to come up by Oct. 1 with a method to consider on a wider than local area basis, as well as thresholds for synchronizing development with roads and transit.

Under protest from Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage at a worksession Monday, the council changed its own proposal to allow the board to waive requirements that developers complete roads and other transportation amenities in one phase of a large subdivision before they are allowed to build another phase.

Berlage denounced as ‘‘micromanagement” the council’s plan to impose the strict staging requirements on transportation projects in a subdivision, except those where the county or state is paying 25 percent of the cost.

But problems with the county’s policy — which requires developers to start, but not finish, roads before beginning a new phase — became clear earlier this year in Clarksburg where activists’ persistence has uncovered hundreds of building violations.

In a report released last week, the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight denounced the Planning Board and the planning department for a flawed and confusing approval system that favors developers’ interests over public participation.

Clarksburg demonstrated the need to change standards to require developers to build certain roads before they may build more houses, development review chief Rose G. Krasnow told the Planning Board in September.

On Monday, Berlage asked the council instead to issue a ‘‘strong statement” that it wants transportation infrastructure built faster and ‘‘front-loaded.”

‘‘If we were in a better place today, if we had more confidence today that these things were going to come about, we would not have this amendment,” Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said Monday.

Without approving the new growth policy, the road staging that proved to be a problem in Clarksburg does not change, said Councilman Steven A. Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring.

The rejected growth policy would have set slightly lower congestion standards at some mid- and upcounty policy areas.

Silverman called the rejected changes ‘‘the five-second solution,” referring to the shorter wait time to get through an intersection.

In Monday’s worksession, the council rejected a proposal by Andrews to cap the additional traffic allowed in Metro areas in exchange for concentrating development near transit points.

‘‘It’s unreasonable to say there’s no limit on growth in Metro Station areas,” Andrews said.

‘‘Smart Growth is dumb growth if it allows gridlock to occur,” he said.

Berlage said the Planning Board opposes such a cap, adding that it would halt growth around the Twinbrook Metro station and could halt growth around White Flint Metro station.

‘‘It’s not a popular stance to take but if you want transit-oriented development you are going to get additional congestion,” Berlage said Monday.