Tag Archives: Montgomery County Planning Board

Why Thrive Dropped the Ball on Equity

Thrive 2050 has many words about equity. So why didn’t the Office of Legislative Oversight’s (OLO) racial equity and social justice (RESJ) review end up giving it a gold star?

Thrive’s staunchest advocates still can’t believe it. Yesterday’s post outlined how they utterly reject the claims made in the RESJ review. Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Planning Department Director Gwen Wright doubled down on their assertations that Thrive addressed RESJ extremely well in their lengthy response.

But it turns out that these problems with Thrive were not a February surprise but were flagged last August in a memo to Councilmember Hans Riemer by the Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice (ORESJ), an executive agency. Riemer chairs the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee which was in the midst of work sessions on Thrive. So what happened? Where did Thrive go awry?

Both the Council and the Executive have offices to do RESJ analyses. How does the Planning Department do the same? Planning staff in June 2020 outlined an action plan to incorporate RESJ into Master and Functional Plans that was approved by the Planning Board.

But, as far as I can tell, Planning did not follow either the Council or the Executive’s model and identify a staffer or establish an office with the requisite skills. Planning’s website highlights their equity plans going forward, including for Thrive 2050 (emphasis added):

Montgomery Planning is developing an Equity Agenda for Planning to systemically dismantle the institutional racism that exists in our work and prevent it in the future. Developing an Equity Agenda for Planning is ongoing and will require constant attention to the influence of institutional racism on all planning and zoning processes. We’ve begun working on this through some recent master plans and studies and through Thrive Montgomery 2050, the update to the county’s General Plan. . . .

It will take some time to fully develop a new methodology and approach for equity in the planning process, but we cannot delay applying an equity lens to our work.

But nearly two years after approving the action plan, there is no formalized framework, mechanism or staff to ensure that both outreach and Thrive were done in line with intentional RESJ practices. Nor is there evidence that Planning reached out to OLO or ORESJ for their expertise despite the warning back in August.

Instead, the Planning Board has relied on its own interpretation of what constituted an “equity lens”. There was no separate in-house or independent analysis along the lines of what either the Council or the Executive requires.

Many words about equity does not mean that the process was inclusive or that the substance meaningfully addresses the issue. While Anderson and Wright vehemently defend their work product, they would be in a better position to do so if they had such an analysis. Instead of deciding that they know what constitutes equity, they would have an informed and impartial analysis to buttress their claims that they had done this the right way and addressed all RESJ issues.

In short, this appears to have been handled sloppily, much like the Planning Board’s repeated ethics problems. As I explained yesterday, I think that at least part of this stems from a firm urbanist belief that their ideas will assure racial and economic equity. This makes it all too easy for the Planning Board to misguidedly define their own preferences as “equity”.

But hewing to a particular school of thought and relying on one’s own judgment of what constitutes equity is not the same as genuine outreach to people in the community, let alone communities of color and low-income residents, or incorporation of their ideas and desires into the plan.

That Thrive reflects the nexus of suppositions by Anderson, Wright, Riemer—all very successful Whites—and outside support groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth—whatever their intentions—so perfectly indicates that the process and the result were more performative than inclusive.

Many may question the entire enterprise of RESJ reports and such an intense focus on issues related to it. But the centrality of claims regarding equity to arguments made by Thrive’s advocates only make Planning’s failure more stunning and acute.

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Thrive Proponents Push Back on Racial Equity & Social Justice Review

Thrive 2050, the proposed general plan for Montgomery County, has been touted by advocates as vital to promote economic and racial equity. So it’s interesting to see their reaction to the racial equity and social justice (RESJ) review prepared for the County Council by Dr. Elaine Bonner-Tompkins. Many of the same people who rush to label others who have concerns about Thrive as racists or classist aren’t coping well.

Former Action Committee for Transit (ACT) President Ben Ross attacked the review as handing “a few unelected bureaucrats a veto over the actions of our elected representatives.” The irony that Thrive 2050 was authored by a few unelected bureaucrats over at the Planning Board seems to have escaped him.

Councilmember Hans Riemer also dismissed the review’s concerns, stating “Thrive focuses on racial equity and social justice throughout.” He wants to see Thrive approved by the County Council by the end of next month.

The Planning Board’s response to the RESJ, posted on Facebook by its Chair Casey Anderson, denied there is a problem and claimed that Thrive 2050 is “based on best practices for advancing racial and socioeconomic equity.” Anderson’s response argued the RESJ review is wrong, rather than figure out how to do better.

Like Riemer, Anderson wants the Council to speed through its review. During the recent Thrive 2050 worksession, Senior Legislative Analyst Pam Dunn pushed back against legal information put out by Anderson designed to force the Council to move more quickly.

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The reaction by the forces behind Thrive 2050 isn’t surprising. Thrive is the product of a nexus between the Planning Board led by Anderson, the PHED Committee led by Riemer, and advocacy groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and ACT that draw from the same small overlapping circles. This closely aligned group is determined to fight any changes to a document that reflects their very particular set of views.

Equally important, this group is extremely invested in urbanism as a worldview. They genuinely believe that urbanism provides the right answers to whole set of problems, including racial and economic equity. The leads to a misguided belief Thrive is inherently equitable. But others may have different opinions on what promotes greater equity, and it’s not at all clear that urbanism delivers the goods.

Consequently, it’s important that the Council examine ideas thoughtfully and not accept the framing from a single lens. Even if Thrive is on the right track in many areas, it would benefit from incorporation of meaningful community input. An inclusive document would not mirror a single perspective so exactly.

There is a real difference between conducting outreach and gaining meaningful input. This is why the RESJ review emphasized the need to “elicit the meaningful input of residents of color from communities of color and low-income residents to co-create and update Thrive.” It’s also why Councilmember Nancy Navarro cautioned that ticking off a list of groups was no longer good enough.

Many of the outreach sessions consisted of Planning explaining the positives of Thrive 2050, rather than soliciting and incorporating feedback. Instead of building consensus, Planning and Thrive 2050 advocates took an approach that excluded different viewpoints.

In a similar vein, using lots of equity verbiage is not the same as having a proper and thoughtful analysis of these issues. As it indicated during the work session, the Council is going to have to take the lead in addressing these concerns. The inability of Planning and others to read the room in their vehement reactions to the RESJ review and the Council worksession shows its necessity.

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Greater Silver Spring Chamber Unhappy with Planning Board, Councilmembers

The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce’s (GSSCC) county council candidate questionnaire (embedded in full below and also viewable at this link) contains statements revealing deep frustrations with the county’s approach to planning and development extend to the business community.

Though Silver Spring is widely viewed as one of the most vibrant parts of the county, the lack of commercial development outside of restaurants and retail remains a real problem:

The Silver Spring Central Business District was envisioned to become a smart-growth, live, work, and play community.  However, in the past 10-plus years, Silver Spring has evolved into a primarily residential neighborhood (bedroom community), with virtually no commercial office development.  At this point, the County seems to be focused on just the “live” and “play” aspects.  But local retailers and restaurants are feeling the brunt of having fewer and fewer customers during office hours.

If efforts to build what the Planning Board terms “complete communities” with places to live, work and play fall short even in Silver Spring, one wonders how well they can succeed as the model for the whole county as envisioned in Thrive 2050. GSSCC also sees the Planning Board’s approach to this problem as inadequate:

The Planning Board’s Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan’s sole answer to reviving and expanding Silver Spring’s office market is to simply “improve the public realm (i.e., build more sidewalks, bikeways, parks, etc.).

This is part of GSSCC’s support for a “balanced approach to transportation” that includes roads and parking as well as transit and bike lanes. It clashes with that articulated by the Planning Board in Thrive 2050 as well as some members of the County Council:

The Chamber supports a balanced approach to transportation policies that takes into account the needs of our member businesses, their employees, their customers, and their vendors. That balance must accommodate those who use public transit, drive on our roads, travel by bicycle and on foot, and need sufficient parking options at their destination.

Finally, even in liberal Montgomery County, the focus has shifted from “defund the police” to rising crime:

In recent months, Silver Spring has experienced a dramatic increase in violent crime, which threatens our economy, our business owners, and our residents.  The expansion of our “nighttime economy” has been accompanied by some unintended consequences.  Two recent surveys show that the top concern of most residents is crime and safety.

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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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