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Montgomery County boasts strong schools, highly educated residents and internationally respected cultural and medical institutions. But it struggles with housing, transportation and environmental challenges. And many of its schools are overcrowded.
Two major plans are on the table to meet these challenges, and each suggests significant changes to the way the county has developed in the past.
The county council has already begun to pore over a a new growth plan, officially called the Subdivision Staging Policy that would, among other changes, eliminate most moratoriums on development.
Then there’s Thrive Montgomery 2050, a master plan that imagines the county far into the future.
How could these plans change the county? Which recommendations will meet with resistance? And how can residents help shape these blueprints for growth?
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIIf you live in Montgomery County, change is on the way. County officials are considering two major plans that rethink transportation, development, school construction and more. From how tall developers get to build to which neighborhoods get new schools, the plans are guides to the future.
KOJO NNAMDIToday, we're going to be talking about these two plans, a shorter-term growth plan and a 30-year master plan, both of which need the county council's approval to take effect. What would these plans do, which proposed changes will meet with resistance, and how can citizens weigh in? Joining us now is Gwen Wright, the planning director for Montgomery County. Gwen Wright, thank you for joining us.
GWEN WRIGHTGlad to be here today.
NNAMDIThese two plans came out of your office. There's the growth plan, which is officially called the Subdivision Staging Policy, and the master plan, which has a somewhat catchier name, Thrive Montgomery 2050. Give us your elevator pitch, if you will, on what each of these plans is designed to do.
WRIGHTThanks. Well, the growth policy is something we update every four years. And it lays out how we're going to assure there are adequate public facilities, particularly in terms of transportation and schools, as we look at and review and approve new development. And 2020 is the year that we are updating it. Four years ago, in 2016, we made some pretty big changes regarding transportation. And, in 2020, we're looking at some changes in how we look at school infrastructure.
WRIGHTMontgomery County is a different county than it was 20 or 30 years ago, when we first started doing growth policies. We are really a county that's no longer a Greenfield's county. We're focused on communities where there is infill development and turnover of existing houses, rather than lots and lots of new Greenfield development, although we still have some parts of the county where that's happening.
WRIGHTAnd it really comes down to the fact that we can't have a one-size-fits-all strategy, which is sort of how, historically, we treated these issues. And, in 2016, we separated our transportation regulations into four different areas and had different rules for our more urban areas, our close-in suburbs, our farther-out suburbs and our rural areas.
WRIGHTIn 2020, we're looking at our schools in the same way. We're looking at where are we doing primarily infill, which generates a certain number of school students. Where are we doing turnover, which generates a lot of school capacity issues, and where we still are doing Greenfield. And we're coming up with recommended changes and recommendations for how we evaluate infrastructure.
WRIGHTOne of the biggest things is no more moratorium. That's a big, big, big change, except in our Greenfield areas. And what we're doing with Thrive Montgomery is similar. We're really saying, you know, we are not reinventing the county, but we have to adapt to the new realities and the shifting demographics and technology. And we have to think differently about how the county is going to grow in the next 30 years.
NNAMDIWhen was the last time the county approved such plans? And when plans do get final approval, are they considered suggestions, or do they really guide change?
WRIGHTWell, the growth policy is very connected to our development review process. And it does create rules that individual development applications will have to follow. And it is updated every four years. And so, again, the last change was 2016. This change could have some major affects on what kinds of impact taxes we take in, whether parts of the county go into moratorium or not. So, it has some very, very specific outcomes.
WRIGHTThe Thrive Montgomery 2050 hasn't been fully updated since 1964. There was a small refinement of it in 1993, but we really haven't looked at these big picture issues about how the county should grow in 50 years. And, obviously, the county has changed dramatically. But the general plan, because it is the overarching general plan, is really aspirational. It lays out our goals and our policies that we want to pursue in the coming decades. And it really says, what are the actions we have to take? What are the next steps we have to take to achieve those?
WRIGHTThe example I give is the 1964 plan talked about the importance of agricultural land in open space, but it wasn't until 1980 that we actually created the agreserve and our functional plan for agricultural and open space. So, the general plan lays out the big picture goals and policies and gives us our marching orders about what we should be working on and implementing over the following decades.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Andrew Friedson who represents District 1 on the Montgomery County Council, which includes Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Kensington, Poolesville and parts of Potomac. Andrew Friedson, thank you for joining us.
ANDREW FRIEDSONThanks for having me, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDILet's start talking about the growth plan. This is the shorter-term plan. You're the only member of the Montgomery County Council who sits on both council committees, reviewing it. One of the proposals in the plan would be a major change to the county's moratorium. As Gwen Wright said, no more moratorium on residential development. Could you describe the moratorium in effect now, and how the plan would change it?
FRIEDSONYeah, effectively, the moratorium is put in place when a school or cluster of schools is over a certain percentage of overcrowding. We halt all development in that particular area. And what the intention is that it will drive investment to ensure that the overcrowding is resolved. But the net result is it actually doesn't directly address the problem that it is intending to solve. The only way to solve the school overcrowding is additional resources for schools, to build more capacity. And all moratorium ends up doing, unfortunately, is reducing the amount of resources that we can get by halting new investment and new development.
NNAMDIGwen Wright, how would you respond to that? Many residents would not be onboard with unfettered residential development. Why, in your view, should the county lift the moratorium?
WRIGHTWell, you know, I think what the Councilmember Friedson said is exactly right. The moratorium does not solve overcrowding. In fact, you know, if it had been -- it's been a policy we've had in effect for decades -- we wouldn't be having the overcrowding problems that we have.
WRIGHTIn fact, what it does is it stops development in areas where we would be normally taking in impact taxes that go back to the invested in new schools. And it really has also equity impact, as well, because when we end up having moratoriums, it focuses a lot of attention on these school areas and overcrowded schools that are in very development-attractive areas. And so, they get the focus. They get the attention. A lot of work gets put into figuring out how to solve their capacity issues. And we aren't able to, in an equitable way, look at all of the capacity issues everywhere in the county.
WRIGHTSo, we really think the moratorium was an idea whose time has passed. It worked when we were Greenfield's county, but it really doesn't work when we're dealing with infill development and turnover.
NNAMDIAndrew Friedson, the growth plan changes the type of development that can take place in some regions of the county. What's going to change? Are high-rises or multifamily housing going to be allowed in places where only single-family homes are now allowed?
FRIEDSONWell, the growth policy doesn't necessarily change that, but what it does by being more context-driven in the impact taxes and in some of the requirements in order to build, it will help to incentivize and dis-incentivize certain types of housing and certain types of development in certain areas. And that really is directly related to what the growth plan is intended to do. It's not just for adequate public facilities. It's for appropriate public facilities and making sure that we have development patterns in the places where we think reflects the type of community and county that we want to create.
NNAMDIHow does this plan affect the development of the Purple Line if, of course, it ever gets built, or the land around it? Andrew?
FRIEDSONSo, the plan makes some changes that are somewhat significant in terms of the classification for Purple Line areas, focusing them like we do with Metro areas as transit-oriented, so that they drive transit-oriented development. It mostly relates to the transportation impact tax. And the purpose of that is to incentivize and to encourage the type of development that we want, which is smart growth, transit-oriented development, where we are attracting new housing, new office, hopefully new retail in the type of growth patterns that we want along this critical transportation infrastructure that we are investing significant public resources in order to build.
NNAMDIHere's Mike in Silver Spring, Maryland. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEAll right. Thank you. Yes, to answer the question first, I’d, in a perfect world, like to scrap the moratorium totally, but I think the planning board's recommendation to modify it and leave it up and only, I believe, Clarksburg is a fine compromise. But I want to know what the guests think about the possibility for either of those reforms to go through the council. And with regarding Thrive, if there's time, could you address the possibility for broader reform to largely get rid of single-family housing, exclusive zoning and reform of R-60 and R-90 to maybe get some missing middle in there?
NNAMDIGwen Wright, you first?
WRIGHTYes. Well, you know, first of all, on your first question, I am very hopeful and optimistic that the recommendations for the Subdivision Staging Policy, including changing its name to Growth Policy, will go through the council. I think we have had a lot of good conversations already over the last week, and I think we're making great progress.
WRIGHTBut on the second question, it’s getting into Thrive Montgomery. Thrive Montgomery is a vision of how the county will grow in the next 30 years. And our focus is on economic health, equity and environmental resilience. And we are committed to thinking about growing the county in a way that's both more logical and more equitable. And that does involve thinking about where the 200,000 new people who we anticipate will be in the county in the next 30 years, where they will go.
WRIGHTAnd what we are recommending is, again, refining our existing framework of Wedges & Corridors, but really focusing on those corridors, saying we're going to continue to put more housing in our centers, places like Bethesda, Silver Spring, White Flint, Wheaton. But also creating connections between those centers on corridors that are going to be denser, that are going to be multiuse, that are going to be safer. And that involves changing the infrastructure. And that are going to be lined with more housing.
WRIGHTWe're very committed to the idea of Missing Middle Housing. For those of you who haven't heard of what Missing Middle Housing is, it's really a little bit of back to the future. Instead of just having single-family houses and townhouses, it's having small apartment buildings. It's having duplexes. It's having triplexes. Some people call it gentle density, but it is a way of saying we can create more density in relation to our single-family neighborhoods without damaging the true character of those single-family neighborhoods.
WRIGHTSo, this Thrive Montgomery plan looks at putting more density along our corridors, particularly the corridors that are going to have bus rapid transit. And that density will be in the form of, you know, this more gentle density, the missing middle, the duplexes, triplexes, small apartments. And we look at that as a way to accommodate growth in the county, while still staying very true to our original Wedges & Corridors concept. We just need to make our corridors a lot better, a lot friendlier, a lot safer than they are today, and make them places for growth.
NNAMDIHere is Jean in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEANHi, Andrew and Gwen. One effort -- I'm looking at the big picture here -- one effort to raise more revenue for infrastructure and services is reflected in county ballot question A, which would rationalize property taxes and collect more revenue from properties that have increased in value. However, at this time, the planning board and some councilmembers, including Andrew, are working hard to reduce or eliminate both impact taxes on new development and property tax on high-priced developments on our most valuable land on Metro property, while increasing recordation tax, impacting homeowners.
JEANTo me these proposals are a transfer of the burden of pain for infrastructure from developers, who aim to maximize their profits, naturally, to individuals, homeowners and renters. Can you explain how this dichotomy benefits the county and its residents?
FRIEDSONWell, thanks for the question. First of all, I crafted and authored question A, and I hope that folks will vote for A and against B. It is a huge issue for our ability to build the type of community that we want. All the things that we talk about here are rooted in whether or not we have the resources and the type of economy and the type of quality of life in Montgomery County that we need. And for that reason, we need a rational tax policy that A would provide with a rate-base system, versus the doubling down on a broken system that we currently have, which question B would ensure and would potentially bankrupt the county.
FRIEDSONThe council's taking up the issues that you raise. I wouldn't say that the council is pushing through things. We’re taking these issues up one by one. It's a puzzle piece when it comes to the growth policy in terms of the impact taxes and the recordation tax. We actually haven't taken those specific issues up that have been proposed.
FRIEDSONAnd there are areas, that as we've taken up this policy, where I have agreed with the planning board, areas where I have disagreed with the planning board areas, where I have agreed with different stakeholders and areas that I've disagreed with certain stakeholders, including real estate community, the PTAs, residents and others. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all that, you know, group of one way or the other.
FRIEDSONBut the question of shifting the burden, we currently have a system that shifts the burden as it is. It makes it extremely difficult to build new housing. It makes housing extremely expensive for new residents and for new businesses. And it is a perverse disincentive. It makes us not competitive and that takes away the attraction of the most beneficial places that we want growth to take place, which is on top of and at transit.
FRIEDSONThat's why we are trying to provide and push and look for opportunities to better reflect the type of building and development that we want, and reflect the type of smart growth policies that we have committed to, the housing targets that we've committed to, in order to keep up.
FRIEDSONSo, you know, in terms of shifting the burden, the impact tax right now is extremely cost prohibitive. It's not reflective of any of our regional counterparts. We have some of the highest impact taxes, not just in the region, but in the entire country. That, on top of the moratorium, make us a place where we're not putting up a welcome sign for investment, for new businesses, for new residents, for new housing. We're putting up, you know, flashing red lights, and we're stopping that from happening.
FRIEDSONAnd that doesn't just hurt existing residents. It hurts new residents that we could have. And if we want to build the type of vibrant community that we talk about, if we want our rhetoric to match the reality of what we're actually creating, we have to be willing to make changes and to address the new moment that we're in and the new opportunities that we have, and the fact that we are now in a regional competition for jobs and for residents in a way that we never have before, frankly.
NNAMDIWell, Gwen Wright, four years ago when the county wrote its last growth plan, it focused on transportation. But this plan is focused on schools. So, first, let's hear from Allison in Silver Spring. Allison, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALLISONYeah, I'm a MCPS parent, and I would like to say that I support ending the moratorium. Despite the fact that my kids are in very crowded schools, I see that it is doing a lot of harm, and doing away with it would be very good for the county. We need more housing. We especially need more housing near transit, and the moratorium hinders smart growth. And it seems to me like it's causing an awful lot of sprawl. We ought to be making use of the infrastructure that's already there and reinvesting in areas where we won't have to build new infrastructure.
NNAMDIWell, Allison identifies as a parent of a Montgomery County Public School student. Gwen Wright, what changes does the growth plan propose for dealing with a system filled with overcrowded schools?
WRIGHTThe growth policy, as we've proposed, talks about a set of changes to impact taxes and to the recordation tax that we believe will not diminish the amount of funding that is going to be available for building new schools. We did not want to create a growth policy that would end up providing less money for building new schools. But we wanted to do something where the shift would be to where the children are coming from.
WRIGHTWe are getting some children in infill areas, certainly quite a few in Greenfield areas, but the vast majority of new students, the capacity issues in our schools, are due to turnover. Because of the county having been built out in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we're at a point where we're seeing those first generation of homeowners sell their houses and new families come in, and new families have children that need to go to schools. And so, we really believe that adding in a small increase to the recordation tax -- and it is small -- is an appropriate way of having the funding from that turnover help pay for the improvements that we need to schools.
WRIGHTThe other thing I wanted to say about housing, just quickly, you know, we were part of the whole COG housing, regional housing initiative. And we looked -- the COG and Montgomery County looked very closely at how much housing we're going to need to be able to really create both affordable and attainable housing for our children and our grandchildren.
WRIGHTAnd, to do that, we, as a county, have to produce about 41,000 new units of housing in the next 30 years. That's -- I'm sorry, in the next 10 years. (laugh) That is approximately 4,100 units per year. What we're actually producing is about 2,500 units per year. We are not producing enough housing to meet our growth needs. And so, a big thrust of both the growth police and the Thrive Montgomery 2050 is to say, let's figure out where we can grow. Let's find the right places for that growth. Let's put the right policies in place to incentivize and to pay for that growth. They are really both related topics.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, Andrew Friedson. When will the council vote on the growth plan, and how can citizens weigh in?
FRIEDSONThanks for that. We're taking it up right now. We have regular public meetings that committees are taking up, the two committees that I'm in, the Government Operations and Planning Housing and Economic Development Committee. And we have had a number of work sessions, already. We'll have more next week. The next one's on October the 5th, and we'll be taking this up and have to approve it by November the 15th.
NNAMDIWhat does citizen participation in this process look like in the middle of a pandemic?
FRIEDSONThe citizen participation actually -- you know, we've limited presence at the county council for public health reasons, but not participation. And, in fact, we've seen greater participation in many ways during the pandemic than we did before that. And I think it reflects the fact there are a number of people who can't make it to the county council during a workday at 1:30 or in the evenings at 7:30 for a public hearing. But they can log in on their computer.
FRIEDSONAnd that means working parents, that means a number of our residents, and so their significant ability to weigh in.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's -- Andrew Friedson and Gwen Wright, thank you both for joining us. This segment on development and growth in Montgomery County was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about the census was produced by Ines Renique.
NNAMDIComing up Friday on The Politics Hour, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld talks about the financial future of D.C.'s Metro system amid a steep drop in ridership due to the pandemic. Then we talk coronavirus and protests with Ann Wheeler, the first Democratic chair of Prince William County's Board of Supervisors since 1999. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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