Category Archives: planning

Part II: Thrive’s Failure on Affordable Housing

Thrive Montgomery 2050 fails to protect affordable housing. Ironically, this is being done in the name of building more affordable housing. Well, sort of. Affordable housing means housing for those at the lowest income levels, either regulated by the county or naturally occurring. Thrive has noticeably evolved away from focusing on “affordable” to “attainable”, with the latter meaning more units but not necessarily an increase in affordable units.

Thrive doesn’t worry about protecting existing affordable places to live. The idea is that tearing down currently affordable buildings isn’t a problem because they will be replaced by new buildings that will contain a greater number of affordable units.

There are major problems with this logic. For a start, the new buildings don’t necessarily have to contain more affordable units. In Bethesda, Brown/Aldon is tearing down 477 naturally occurring affordable apartments on Battery Lane. The new set of buildings, planned over the next 15 years, will include 1530 new units but only 306 MPDUs (moderately priced dwelling units). As a result, the project will cause a net loss of 171 affordable units—and that’s generously counting the MPDUs which are geared towards those earning 60-80% of area median income, not the lowest income.

So we’ll experience a net loss in affordable housing—in the middle of an area where everyone agrees we could use more of it. Under this logic, often we will be destroying existing naturally occurring affordable units for very little or no gain in regulated affordable units, and an increased number of more expensive units.

Thrive proponents even want to pay developers with our tax dollars to tear down existing buildings and build denser in the name of affordable housing. If there is sufficient demand, why do we need to bribe them to build it? And why should we financially aid the destruction of existing affordable housing?

Bribing developers to do something the market is telling us doesn’t make sense is a waste of money. It is a one-off “solution” that provides no guarantee that more housing, and especially affordable housing, will follow. Yet that won’t prevent councilmembers who would chuck our taxes away from pointing to the building as a great new accomplishment.

The most inequitable part of all this, however, is the total lack of consideration for the current residents of existing affordable housing. Renters get thrown out of their homes, so the new building can be built. But finding new affordable housing in desirable locations is difficult, and many will experience major dislocation and need to move much further away. In some cases, the County will literally be paying builders to do projects that will throw low-income residents out in the name of affordable housing.

Thrive should be modified to protect existing affordable housing. Let’s encourage new building, including with MPDUs, in areas without it. We shouldn’t cannibalize our existing stock of affordable housing and dislocate people in this chimera of progress.

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Thrive’s Failure on Housing, Part I: If We Zone It, They Will Come

The Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan casts the lack of robust housing growth as a major challenge facing the county, suggesting that it will leave people unhoused. It further suggests that job growth won’t happen unless we have more housing. The proposed solution is to increase allowed residential density in both commercial centers and single-family residential neighborhoods.

This approach wholly misunderstands both the reality of the situation and market economics. Much land is already zoned both for housing and density. According to Montgomery’s Planning Department, there are roughly 36,500 unbuilt residential units. This doesn’t even include Rockville and Gaithersburg.

In 2019, the Council of Governments (COG) released a housing target of 41,000 new units for Montgomery by 2030. We built 4,739 new units in 2019 and 2020, leaving 36,261 to be built by 2030. Even excluding all of the units built in 2021, we have already approved enough new units to meet COG’s housing target.

The ideas that there is no place to build and that insufficient housing is planned to meet expected needs are simply false. The lack of opportunities to build is not the problem, as anyone who has driven past the remains of White Flint Mall knows. Of course, sections of nearby Pike & Rose are also still being built.

But can we get even more housing built through adding density? Proponents envision developers responding to Thrive-enabled upzoning by building massive numbers of new units and thereby depressing the price, whether for rental or sale. New jobs, they say, will come to Montgomery as a result. But that’s not how the market works. Developers build in response to demand. New jobs result in new housing—not the reverse.

Developers also naturally consider many complex factors in deciding when and how much to build, especially land prices, building costs, sales prices, and likely profits. No matter how much we upzone, developers won’t dump more housing on the market. Developers look to make a profit, so they build at a rate that allows them to make money based on demand—not at a rate that results in profit-killing price declines.

This isn’t a nefarious plot to limit housing. It’s just how the economy works and assures that new housing gets built. But zoning for more housing won’t result in more housing unless there is a demand for it in that area and the economics of building it make sense. No one is going to build more if prices are going down and they can’t make money out of it.

Just because you zone it doesn’t mean that they’ll build it. Rampant increases in density may slow building because tall buildings are much more expensive to construct. But builders don’t want to lose the profits off the increased density, so they wait to build until it’s profitable. Indeed, this is the rationale behind the expensive payments to build at Grosvenor Metro even as property taxes rise.

The evidence that “smart” growth results in lower prices is thin on the ground. Neither Portland nor New York is known for affordability. But Houston, the embodiment of sprawl, is. Why? Texas is big so the city can expand outward much more easily than here. They also have no zoning, so development can be densely packed or spread out. It’s an argument for a set of policies very different from smart growth.

In short, Thrive promises a chimera. If only we increase density and allow more housing to be built, housing prices will come down and jobs will increase. Montgomery County has allowed more density repeatedly in recent years and it hasn’t happened. Thrive’s doubling down on the strategy won’t work either.

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Racial Equity and Social Justice Review Slams Thrive

The Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) has released its preliminary Racial Equity and Social Justice (RESJ) review of Thrive 2050 (text embedded below or click this link). Its analysis attacks Thrive at its core.

Thrive leads with a vision for economic development that focuses on attracting new businesses and workers to the County who can afford to reside and/or work in mixed-use, transit-oriented town centers. Yet, this economic development approach could widen racial and social inequities as it primarily offers benefits to affluent and disproportionately White people.

That’s got to hurt for Thrive 2050 proponents. They routinely tout it as an extremely progressive document and attack people who have concerns with part or all of it as racists or classists. The RESJ review suggests that Thrive supporters have been casting stones from comfortable glass houses.

The RESJ review also creates a huge procedural problem for moving forward with Thrive 2050:

OLO finds that the request to develop a RESJ impact statement for Thrive 2050 was premature as the PHED Committee draft is not yet ready for a comprehensive RESJ review. Instead, this memo offers six sets of observations and recommendations for updating Thrive, so it better aligns with best practices for advancing RESJ.

The Council adopted the RESJ review process with much fanfare and intense commitment. The Council is not supposed to move forward with the matter until it has received an RESJ review. If the Council truly believes in the importance of the process it created, its review process should halt until Thrive is updated so that OLO can undertake a proper RESJ analysis.

It’s not my preference but it’s that or they can ignore their own law.

Contrary to claims made within Thrive, the OLO believes that people of color and low-income residents have not been adequately consulted during its preparation. One of OLO’s key recommendations for updating Thrive for a proper RESJ review is:

Elicit the meaningful input of residents of color from communities of color and low-income residents to co-create and update Thrive so that it reflects a consensus of land use policies and practices aimed at advancing RESJ.

This suggestion was reiterated a second time later in the document. Some who want the Council to move forward might well find fault with the ideological spin underpinning the RESJ review. But this is exactly what the Council asked for with RESJ analyses.

In short, Thrive proponents face quite a conundrum. They have sold this document precisely on racial equity and social justice grounds. Yet the RESJ review says that the process failed to conform to equity standards and that the core approach adopted by the Planning Board and the PHED Committee will worsen these problems.

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Thriving Together

The Tweeters have been active since the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) condemned me. I’ve been threatened with physical violence and another prominent smart growth blogger says I “must be stopped.” Twitter suspended the account of the person who threatened me.

While not pleasant, a friend with good sense reminded me to “ignore the trolls” and that the “Twitter echo chamber is not representative of the real world.” The bile seemed to go far beyond anger at my criticizing a lobbyist for not filing required reports.

What I rapidly learned is that my series of posts about problematic ethics at the Planning Board and lobbying raised the ire of advocates for Thrive 2050 —the county’s general plan that the County Council is set to consider. Apparently, similar treatment has been meted out to others deemed to be critics, though I have literally not written a word on Thrive prior to today.

Well, they got me much more interested. I have not followed the Thrive debate closely. Like many, I’ve been focused on my job and getting through the pandemic, so I stopped blogging completely. Over the weekend, I’ve started to gain a quick education.

The key takeaway so far is that new County Council President Gabe Albornoz and Vice President Evan Glass have their work cut out for them. The intense divisions and acrimony around Thrive mirror the ugly mood and tenor of debate in the country. Confidence isn’t increased by the Planning Board’s failure to register lobbyists, violations of the open meetings law and abuse of the consent calendar to constrain public input on other matters.

The good news is that I cannot think of two people more suited to address it. While I sometimes disagree with them strongly, you won’t find two more fundamentally even-keeled public officials than Councilmembers Albornoz and Glass. As a result, I remain optimistic that they can lead the county to a document that brings people together. Put another way, I hope they can move the process forward to a conclusion but in a way that makes residents feel included and heard.

That doesn’t mean “paralysis by analysis”—the county’s unfortunate moniker for its tendency to study matters into eternity—but it does mean heading towards the end in the right way. How can that be accomplished?

It’s an unfortunate truth of public policy that many people only start to pay greater attention once matters come to a head. (Consider me Exhibit A in this case.) This is especially true because the key parts of the process took place during the pandemic and the 2020 election. So many people still have a lot of questions they would like answered, and many would like to know how the comments they have already provided will be incorporated.

Thrive proponents may be technically correct that the document itself changes nothing with respect to zoning, but it is strongly linked to potential major zoning changes (zoning text amendments) that have also been proposed and are already under discussion. So saying it has no impact on zoning comes across, intentionally or not, as too clever and insincere.

It’s especially important because the Planning Board, led by Casey Anderson, removed certain references to the importance of the Master Planning process. The document is now written to pre-determine outcomes, while simultaneously claiming not to have decided anything. Put another way, we are now being told that it is too early to know its impact on zoning but, once Thrive is passed, it will be too late because “Thrive says . . .”

People want to know what Thrive means for them—how will it affect their home and their neighborhood? What about nearby areas? People care a lot about how changes impact their family and their largest investment or their rent. Using plain language and including specific metrics would go a long way to help residents better understand outcomes Thrive expects to realistically achieve,

In my time as mayor and other leadership positions, I’ve found that listening is far more important than talking. I’m not saying it’s easy or my natural strength, but I work on it. People like to be heard. They also justifiably loathe performative “consultations” where leaders claim to want input, but the outcome has been pre-determined. Councilmembers must incorporate comments from the very broad range of opinion thoughtfully with an open mind.

Which brings me to why this effort is needed to get the process back on track. Many in the community believe that the process has been highly structured to produce a particular outcome supported by a nexus between the Planning Board Chair, activist/business groups like CSG, and certain councilmembers.

The Planning Board staff presented a draft that was amended “in a very surgical way” at the behest of Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson according to insiders. While avowedly done in response to community comment, for example, it’s hard to imagine that this very pro-environment county demanded the excision of Thrive’s specific environmental chapter. Did anyone actually request this? The changes reflect exactly what one would imagine Casey Anderson preferred.

The Thrive appendix outlining planned outreach states:

Blog and vlog: To get involvement from and perspectives of different people in the community — residents, community leaders, business leaders, county officials — we’ll ask different people to be involved in writing or being interviewed for Thrive Montgomery stories to share on the blog.

But the blog is uniformly supportive of Thrive and the concepts behind it. If you do a search for “Thrive” in the blog, almost all of the posts are written by Casey Anderson or other people at the Planning Board. This is what an orchestrated campaign looks like–not an effort to involve diverse voices and different perspectives.

The three-member Council Committee which then reviewed Thrive for the Council is chaired by Hans Riemer, a very good friend and close ally of Casey Anderson. People happier with the original staff document, such as the Civic Federation, understandably see the consultation process as set up to emphasize supporters and limit input from people who might have a contrasting vision.

Former Council President and powerful PHED Committee Chair Riemer’s statement that CSG, a regional organization fiscally sponsored by an out-of-state group with substantial contributions by developers, has been “chairing the conversation” confirms their fears.

Anderson, Riemer and CSG are understandably happy with a document which utterly mirrors their views. That doesn’t make it a bad document in terms of public policy per se, or any of their policy preferences “wrong,” and it certainly doesn’t make any of them remotely bad people. It’s a fine example of structuring a political process to achieve one’s preferred outcome. But it doesn’t provide for an open, transparent, and inclusive process that achieves buy-in from the community.

Finally, as the Council goes through the document, they should go through section by section with both the PHED version and the original Planning Staff version on hand. That will allow the Council to better discuss whether they agree with the changes. Again, they need to discuss how the feedback they’ve received that differs from recommendations is considered and incorporated. This sort of deliberative work session process, conducted in public, will allow for an open process that permits a variety of issues and concerns to be discussed and considered.

There shouldn’t be a complete restart. We need to answer questions, to consult meaningfully, and then the Council can make the decisions we elected them to do. Not everyone will be happy with their decisions, but they’ll likely feel much more included and respected if they are genuinely heard and the document reflects the diverse views in the county.

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It’s the CIP, Stupid!

By Gus Bauman.

Finally! After many years of heated controversy, Montgomery County is about to squarely confront its use of land use moratoria as a part of its growth policy regulations. The County Planning Board, after much study for its regular update of the County’s Growth Policy, has crafted a proposal to largely eliminate land use moratoria in the County. The County Council will ultimately decide the terms and scope of the Growth Policy (titled in more recent years as the Subdivision Staging Policy.)

This correspondent is the former chairman of the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission and its MoCo Planning Board (appointed in ’89, reappointed in ’93). Let me offer some background and candid insight that may prove useful in the coming months as the proposal enters the political windstorm.

The MoCo Annual Growth Policy (the AGP; that was its name for many years) was created in 1986. Why? Because during the ‘80’s, the County was experiencing high growth. It had previously created an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), which was embedded in the Subdivision Ordinance to apply to all new subdivision proposals.

To manage the APFO, the AGP was later instituted as a timing mechanism to match school and transportation needs with corresponding infrastructure development. Buried in the AGP system was the moratorium nuclear bomb—if school or transportation capacity in any defined area of the County became overloaded, then no new subdivision could be approved in that area until the county’s capital budget (the Capital Improvements Program, or CIP) indicated that help was on the way through public improvements and/or private contributions to fix the identified public need.

The moratorium concept was always intended to be a rare, drastic action of last resort. It was never meant to be a routine tool in the planner’s toolbox. Indeed, the very idea of a moratorium is contrary to comprehensive planning, zoning, and budgeting—i.e., to responsible government. For adopting a moratorium is, by definition, an admission of governmental failure. Doing it on a normative basis should be downright embarrassing.

Land use moratoria were supposed to be as rare as snow in June—they were to delay development approvals for a brief time in order that public and sometimes private funds could then target as quickly as possible where the infrastructure need was and fix it. In fact, the very purpose of a looming moratorium was to immediately direct capital funds to the targeted area in order to avoid the moratorium bomb from exploding.

This system only worked, however, where there was both a high growth rate that continued to pay taxes and where infrastructure spending was duly targeted by the County government to any area about to be thrown into moratorium.

But those two preconditions began sliding away in the late 1990’s, and by the turn of the century, they were largely gone. Montgomery County’s growth rate has been in the basement for some 15 years now. Yet the moratorium mechanism, meant to be only an emergency measure in the AGP, never went away. Indeed, it became a favorite fixture of the no-growth crowd. And that crowd has always controlled certain votes in County government.

The rich irony here is that a moratorium is, in truth, all about fiscal and budgetary policy and not a growth or density matter. Whether density on some tract is to be low, medium, or high, whether growth in some area is to be slow, moderate, or rapid, is a land use dynamic regulated by the community master plan as well as the zoning placed on properties. But during the 1990’s, exclusionary forces in Montgomery County realized that use of moratoria could become a normal convenience to accomplish what they otherwise could not accomplish through planning, zoning, and environmental regulations.

Just starve the CIP of transportation spending on certain projects called for in County master plans, and SURPRISE!, the roads in an area are suddenly over capacity. Just redirect school capital funding projects away from certain developing and redeveloping areas, and SURPRISE!, schools in those areas become over capacity. The most extreme example of this practice was how prior County governments allowed the East County to be frozen for many years in moratorium while significant capital funding flowed west, north, and south.

Today’s County Council can see what moratoria have wrought over the past two decades. When an area is placed into moratorium, neither new taxes nor fees can be generated in that area, creating the perverse effect of killing off the very revenues needed to help solve the identified problem. The County Planning Board knows what moratoria have wrought. The practice telegraphs to the business community to avoid investing in Montgomery when so many other nearby options exist called DC, Frederick County, Prince George’s County, and the multiple jurisdictions in Northern Virginia.

Moratoria are all about erecting walls. The Montgomery County government should be knocking down walls. The County should be using its highly detailed master plans, its incredibly rigorous zoning, its adequate public facilities ordinance, its huge budget, as well as its growth policy, to channel public infrastructure improvements where they are needed.

It is telling that Montgomery County prides itself on having the toughest, most “sophisticated” planning, zoning, environmental, and transportation controls in the region as well as being blessed with a large tax base and corresponding budget, yet, simultaneously, it is the only regional jurisdiction that regularly applies that admission of governmental failure, the moratorium.

To paraphrase the famous presidential campaign slogan of the 1990’s, “It’s the CIP, stupid.”

Gus Bauman is an attorney who lives in Silver Spring. He served two terms as chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board.

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Elrich Requests That Planning Board Limit Work to “Noncontroversial” Issues

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a letter to Council President Sidney Katz, County Executive Marc Elrich has asked the council to limit the work of the Planning Board to “noncontroversial” issues during the COVID-19 crisis.

Elrich begins his letter by noting that the council has delayed some hearings on non-budget issues due to problems of public participation stemming from social distancing. Elrich contrasts that with the planning board’s policies. He writes:

The Planning Board continues to meet, have substantive presentations, and take action on controversial matters important to the public. While its meetings are available on the website and the Planning Board has provided a form for public participation, the new process is complicated and subject to ‘technical difficulties,’ as happened on Thursday, April 2nd. The result is little, if any, participation by a distracted public.

After noting two issues of public interest before the board – an amendment to environmental overlay zones in Ten Mile Creek and ongoing work on the Subdivision Staging Policy – Elrich writes:

I ask that the Council give direction to the Planning Board consistent with its own decision to delay certain public hearings until such time as the public can more fully participate. Because sensitive environmental and major policy decisions require full public participation, I recommend that the Board limit its actions to those agenda items that are noncontroversial, necessary for the administrative functioning of the agency, and unrelated to major policy decisions that will come before the Council.

It’s unclear whether the council has the specific authority to direct the Planning Board in how to perform its work. The council does fund the agency and it appoints Planning Board Members. Complicating the issue is Elrich’s barely veiled contempt for Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson. Last year, Elrich told Bethesda Beat that he was “not a fan” of Anderson but the council unanimously reappointed him as chair anyway.

We reprint Elrich’s letter below.

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Planning Board Forum

The County Council will soon fill two important vacancies, including the position of Chair, on the Montgomery County Planning Board. The LGBTQ Democrats are holding a forum for the candidates moderated by Adam Pagnucco on Monday night:

The LGBTQ Democrats of Montgomery County invite you to a public forum to hear from candidates for the Montgomery County Planning Board. The forum will be held on Monday, June 3, from 7:00pm – 8:30pm at the Silver Spring Civic Center and moderated by Adam Pagnucco, opinion columnist for Bethesda Magazine

The five-person Montgomery County Planning Board plays a major role in the land use decisions throughout Montgomery County––from zoning, building heights and density to creation of new parks and developments affecting the 1.1 million county residents.

There are two vacancies on the Planning Board and a total of 24 applicants. In June, the County Council will narrow the field of candidates and then select two appointees. 

Prior to the Council making their final selection, the Montgomery County LGBTQ Democrats want to educate the public on the critical role the Planning Board plays in shaping our communities and future growth of the county. We believe that it’s important to hear directly from candidates about their goals for zoning, development and other planning issues –– especially as they relate to LGBTQ people.

We hope that you can join us for this important discussion

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The County Executive’s Least Known Power

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s Charter lays out the County Executive’s powers and responsibilities.  The best known include nominating department heads, drafting recommended operating and capital budgets, vetoing legislation, representing the county in public and in Annapolis and directing the operations of county government.  It’s a powerful office.  But the least known, and one of the most interesting, powers of the Executive doesn’t appear in the charter and has not been used in more than thirty years.  If it is exercised by the next Executive, its use could have a significant impact on the county’s future direction.

Land use is a huge issue in county government.  It is largely the province of the County Council and the Planning Board.  The board makes many recommendations to the council on master plans, zoning, impact taxes, transportation projects, its own agency budget and numerous other matters.  In serving in its advisory capacity, the board’s recommendations are subject to final action by the council.  But the board has its own powers too, especially in deciding preliminary plans, site plans and other development applications.  Individual projects need to conform to applicable master plans, statutes and regulations but it is the board that decides how and whether they do.  That’s an enormous amount of authority resting with the board.

The five Planning Board Members are appointed to staggered terms by the County Council.  Because of the board’s power and influence, these appointments are taken very seriously by the council and everyone else with an interest in land use decisions.  But here is something that relatively few people have known about until now:

The County Executive can veto Planning Board appointments.

Maryland Land Use Code Ann. § 15-103, which we reprint below, lays out the process by which Planning Board appointments are made.

Note that SEVEN of the nine votes on the County Council are required to override an Executive’s veto of an appointment.  Under the county charter, six votes are required to override an Executive veto of a bill or budget item.

The last time we know of an Executive vetoing a Planning Board appointment occurred in 1986.  At that time, the council appointed Rosalie Silverberg, a civic activist from Bethesda, to the board.  County Executive Charles Gilchrist vetoed the appointment because the other four board members were also from Bethesda and the Executive desired geographic diversity on the board.  So the council appointed attorney Nancy Floreen, who then lived in Silver Spring, to the board instead.  (That turned out to be a momentous decision as Floreen would later go on to be a hugely influential four-term County Council Member and chair of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee.)

The Executive is not commonly regarded as a major player in county land use decisions as the County Council and the Planning Board have direct authority over them.  But a determined Executive would only need three allies on the County Council to exert control over the Planning Board through his or her veto power.  Such control would not be absolute; the Executive can only veto whereas the council alone can nominate.  But it’s easy to see how Planning Board appointments could be high stakes, political confrontations in such a scenario.  And when politics gets involved, well… who knows what could happen?

The point here is that an Executive’s land use views matter and he or she has the power to make them stick.  Whatever your views on the subject, that is worth remembering in the voting booth.

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Montgomery County Land Use 101

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Del. Marc Korman about former Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson’s new book on the history of planning in Montgomery County.

Rumors abound that there could be more than 50 candidates running for the Montgomery County Council in the next election cycle (after attending the recent Montgomery County Democratic Party Spring ball, I think that could be an under-estimate).  I would recommend that each of them dive into Suburb: Planning Politics and the Public Interest, by Royce Hanson.

Royce Hanson is a legendary figure in Montgomery County.  He chaired the Planning Board from 1972 to 1980 and was brought back in as something of an elder statesman from 2006 to 2010 to clean-up improprieties fond related to development in Clarksburg.  His most lauded accomplishment is the establishment of the Agricultural Reserve which covers about one-third of Montgomery County although he oversaw numerous sector and master plans during his two tenures.  Mr. Hanson has had less success as a political candidate in the County.

Suburb is closely related to a series of speeches Mr. Hanson gave at the Planning Board Department in 2014 and 2015, which can be watched online and may be more accessible for some than the book.  Hanson’s book—like the lectures—tells the story of planning in Montgomery County essentially from the establishment of the bicounty agencies Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (the Planning Board) in the 1910s virtually up until the present.  Hanson sees County land use through three lenses.

First, land use decisions are usually the outcome of the back and forth between what he calls the “Miniature Republic”—homeowners, taxpayers–and the “Commercial Republic”—major land owners and developers.  At different times and in different locations, the power rests more heavily with one than the other.

Second, he traces land use decisions through several political regimes in the County’s history, which will be of particular interest to many local readers: The [Blair] Lee regime dominated by an insider political machine; the builders and the bar regime in which land use attorneys controlled the planning process; the progressive regime that emerged from the new Executive form of government in the 1970s, which he views himself as a product of; and the current “pure political” regime which Hanson views as lacking a cohesive vision for County land use.

Third, Hanson sees ultimate planning decisions as the place where the logic of consequentiality—the more technical and planning-based logic of bureaucrats–meets the logic of appropriateness—the politician’s changes to satisfy certain parties and make planning decisions more palatable.

The book marches through a number of “case studies” beginning with the 1964 General Plan, known as Wedges and Corridors; reimagining Bethesda and Friendship Heights for Metro; the resurgence of Silver Spring; updating White Flint for the 21st century; development of corridor cities such as Gaithersburg, Rockville, Montgomery Village, and Germantown; the huge and scandalous errors with Clarksburg development; the creation of the Agricultural Reserve; and the growth policy regularly updated by the Planning Board and County Council and now called the Subdivision Staging Policy.  Each of these chapters is rich with detail, but at times it feels as though you are just reading a series of facts and events as opposed to any type of analysis.  There are insights about what political and planning compromises worked (and sometimes didn’t work) in specific locations in Montgomery County at particular times, but broader conclusions about planning and process are hard to discern.

Indeed, Hanson even recognizes this late in the book when he concedes that it “is hazardous to overgeneralize from the experience of Montgomery County”, although he goes on to say that examples, analogies, insights, and more can be drawn and applied elsewhere, which is true in the broad sense that another place could redevelop a suburban strip mall near transit, come up with transferable development rights, or target specific neighborhoods through sector plans.  As someone more interested in the Montgomery County story, this approach helped focused on facts and events suited me fine but may be seen as a shortcoming to others.  Indeed, while as I said I think this book is important to read for County Council candidates, I’m not sure who else besides them, other local elected officials, and committed local activists would really appreciate this book.  I certainly did, but I’m in one of those relatively narrow buckets.

Hanson may have been torn between writing a history of Montgomery County planning politics and case studies that could potentially be used to teach planners anywhere and sometimes he did not find the balance he was looking for.  Those interested in the history will want to know who the unnamed councilmembers were who voted against appointing Norman Christellar Planning Board Chair and planning students will probably want to know why the failed plan to build another Mall of America in Silver Spring is relevant to their studies.  I, of course, understand why a pure Montgomery County history book was not written, as it would clearly have a small audience.  It has also been pointed out to me that the history of the County’s actions over race are almost entirely omitted.  I am sure others who lived through some of these planning efforts will note their own omissions.

Still, for you local history buffs there are plenty of interesting facts.  For example, County Executives used to control some appointments to the Planning Board and, for a time under County Executive Kramer, they could revise plans before they went to the Council.  Neil Potter devolved these powers back to the Council after defeating Kramer.  Hanson is also open with his criticism of some local County players and even relies on Adam Pagnucco research in making his attacks.  Former Councilwoman Idamae Garrott comes off as particularly responsive to the current mood of the best organized voters.

If you sit in lots of meetings about sector plans, dream about being on the County Council, or read blogs like this one, then this book is for you.  It covers interesting history and can be a good reference regarding particular parts of the County.   But for those not fitting that description, this book and its detailed history of Montgomery County land use may be more of a slog.  For the right audience, this book can provide a useful baseline of how Montgomery County developed over the last century and why.

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