Medium: It’s Time for a 21st Century Framework for Sustainable Growth in Montgomery County
Montgomery County is a prosperous and thriving place. Our quality of life is envied by many other communities. We have a diversity of neighborhoods, across hundreds of square miles. We have a highly regarded public school system, community college, local access to the University of Maryland systemat the Universities of Shady Grove, plus a campus of the Johns Hopkins University. We have a vast local park system and other recreational opportunities, both public and private. We are the linchpin of Maryland’s economy.
Yet we are also a community that is more and more unaffordable, with a widening gap between our highest earners and everyone else. Over one-thirdof MCPS students receive free or subsidized meals. Over half of Montgomery County renters are cost-burdened and the cost of homeownership is no less of a challenge for our residents. Our ever-worsening transportation crisis further intensifies these challenges.
In short, the incredible lifestyle that Montgomery County offers remains out of reach for too many residents. But the good news is we can ensure that every resident fully — and equally — benefits from living in our wonderful community by charting a comprehensive and fully inclusivevision for future growth. The even better news is that our community is hungry for just such a vision.
As I meet thousands of residents across Council District 3, neighbors of all generations share with me that they want to hear what our plans are for growing equitably and sustainably. In the current absence of such a vision, they’re losing hope in our ability to do so.
Our leaders must win back the trust of residents by sharing a bold framework for sustainable and inclusive growth over the coming decades. Our population is expected to grow by more than 200,000 people over the next 20 years. If we don’t plan accordingly, the affordability and congestion challenges we face now will intensify beyond repair. For decades, growth in Montgomery County has been guided at the most basic level by the General Plan on Wedges and Corridors. But the General Plan has not been comprehensively reviewed by County leadership for 25 years. The Montgomery County of 2018 is very different than the Montgomery County of 1993. Our community’s plans for the 21st Century shouldn’t be guided by a 20th Century framework.
Meanwhile, Frederick County — just up the I-270 Corridor — is well into the process of a developing a comprehensive plan to guide their planning over the next 10 to 25 years. They’ve proactively engaged community members and stakeholders in a process to collaboratively envision what they want their community to look like over the next quarter century. In doing so, they’ve looked beyond the less transparent approach of shorter-term planning, in which private development and public infrastructure are too often considered outside of a comprehensive framework. Montgomery County should consider a similar approach for improving the effectiveness of our land use plans and interrelated local policies. Doing so might help advance the sort of mixed-use, transit-oriented redevelopment that our community must prioritize to broaden access to affordable housing, provide adequate public infrastructure, and alleviate congestion.
A case in point is the Shady Grove Sector Plan. Adopted in 2006, the primary objective of the Sector Plan was redeveloping the area surrounding the Shady Grove Metro Station into a vibrant, mixed-use community. Years later, however, there is still no consensus on a plan to relocate the MCPS school bus depot from its current location at that site. Its ongoing presence is contrary to the sustainable development already underway in the rest of that area, including the other public facilities that were moved as part of County Executive Leggett’s “Smart Growth Initiative.” After an hasty, ill-considered, ad hoc effort to relocate the depot to two locations in Rockville collapsed,County leaders decided to study of the storage of school buses countywide — with no discernable timeframe for the study itself, let alone a process for evaluating its recommendations. The result leaves all communities in limbo — those who still may find the depot next to their homes, those in Derwood anticipating a new park, and the parents of students who ride the bus.
The challenge of relocating the MCPS Crabbs Branch School Bus Depot was no secret when the Sector Plan was adopted in 2006. However, there was no provision in the Sector Plan for promptly commencing such a study, like that now apparently underway. A reinvigorated General Plan — produced through a community-driven, collaborative process — would provide a holistic framework for addressing such countywide infrastructural challenges that threaten to inhibit smart growth principles, like those inherent in the Shady Grove Sector Plan.
The need to produce such a vision is urgent. Every time necessary redevelopment falls short of its promise due to a planning failure, public confidence in our local government erodes. Community members lose faith in our County to plan for adequate infrastructure ahead of the next smart growth project. Talk of a building moratorium swells and the collective appetite for necessary mixed-use, transit-oriented development lessens. Hope for a sustainable, affordable future for Montgomery County recedes.
It’s time to restore that hope by charting a comprehensive vision for sustainable growth for Montgomery County. Doing so starts with modernizing the General Plan to acknowledge the 21st Century challenges our community faces and provide a stronger foundation for the timely provision of public infrastructure.
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