This is a guest post by Del. Eric Luedtke. Eric represents District 14 (Montgomery) in the House of Delegates.
For years now, literally years, there has been a shopping center in Montgomery County sitting almost entirely empty, only a few stores open, fronting a large expanse of empty blacktop fit only for tumbleweed. The shopping center can only be called suburban blight, something Montgomery County residents aren’t exactly used to. It’s not the sort of thing you expect to happen in a county with as much affluence as ours. Except it has, in Burtonsville, where I live. The shopping center’s slow decline was the result of a combination of difficult economic factors and a large corporation (Giant Foods) who clearly cares more about playing economic hardball than doing right by the community.
Ask anyone in Burtonsville about it and they’ll tell you something revealing about their perception of the politics of our county: if this were elsewhere, it wouldn’t have happened. There would have been a sense of urgency. There would have been a plan from the beginning to do something about the decline of the commercial core of a major Montgomery County community. Or about the incredible imbalance of jobs and housing in the Route 29 corridor. Or the lack of amenities. Or the nightmare that is Route 29 during the morning rush. But there hasn’t been much of a sense of urgency. Instead, we’ve seen what might be described as benign neglect. Lots of people in county government chafe at that assessment, and people in other parts of the county also complain about their needs not being met. But if the measure of success is results, we just haven’t seen the results we need.
I don’t mean to say the county has done nothing. A number of our councilmembers have done their best to help move things forward. But in no way have efforts to address the challenges of the upper 29 corridor been close to what we’ve seen elsewhere. For whatever reason, buried deep in the power dynamics of our county, or because of the challenges of outreach in an unincorporated community, residents of Burtonsville, Fairland, and White Oak just don’t feel like they are being heard.
Witness the White Oak Science Sector Master Plan, which has been under debate between the Council and Planning Commission for months now. As residents demanded more jobs and amenities, county planners with the encouragement of councilmembers responded by developing a new plan for the area around the FDA campus which would include mixed-use development. It would be a new economic anchor for the county, and would give east county residents the kind of walkable core community that other parts of the county have had long since. And yet, its future is in doubt.
The plan is being squeezed from two ends by traffic issues. From the north, hordes of Howard County commuters clog up 29. In the south, some residents of the communities around four corners have been opposing any new development because they are concerned about more traffic. And there are some members of the Council who seem likely to vote to weaken the White Oak plan to appease these folks, applying so strict a traffic test that bringing any substantial new jobs or amenities to the area would be virtually impossible. In other words, our residents could be robbed of the jobs and amenities they’re demanding because of out-of-county commuters and the opposition of a community that already has good access to jobs and amenities. It’s a difficult pill for many of us to swallow.
Enter the District 5 Council candidates. This district, newly redrawn following the census, encompasses the entire 29 corridor from the DC line to the Howard County line. Five candidates are running. None are from our end of the district. All are focusing their efforts in the southern end, where more of the votes lie. As far as I know, only one of them has been actively knocking on doors in Fairland or Burtonsville. Once again, our forgotten corner of the county seems to be an afterthought.
It’s frustrating to the whole community, and to me in particular. I know and respect each of the candidates, and I’ve spoken to each of them extensively about the needs north of Randolph Road. I’ve given driving tours of the community to some of them. I’ve sat down over lunch at Cuba de Ayer in Burtonsville to pitch them on more focused economic development strategies. I’ve emphasized the importance of the proposed Route 29 BRT line to relieving congestion and allowing any development to occur. But they aren’t showing up to talk to upper 29 voters. And if you check out the issue platforms on their websites, what you’ll see are generalities rather than the real plans we would like to see for how to resolve our issues.
Our residents deserve a councilmember who understands their issues, who will fight to resolve them, and who is committed to actively listening to them. None of the District 5 council candidates has yet demonstrated that commitment. Perhaps they will during the May 28 candidate’s forum being held at 7:00 PM at the East County Regional Services Center. But until that happens, my endorsement, let alone my vote, remains firmly in the undecided column. And I know many of my neighbors feel exactly the same way.