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Growing Under a Microscope

Experts, public weigh in on the initial recommendations for the county’s new growth policy.

A building moratorium proposed by Montgomery County Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-4) failed last fall, but in its wake the Council is looking closely at the future of development within the county.

The Montgomery County Planning Board staff last week issued its recommendations for amending the policy that determines the future of the county’s growth and development. The goal of the county’s growth policy is to synchronize the construction of an adequate infrastructure to support the construction of new homes and commercial buildings.

The Montgomery County Council charged the Planning Board with revising the county’s plans for future growth for the first time since 2003 after Praisner’s proposal created concerns that the county would be seen as anti-business.

When the Council reviewed the Annual Growth Policy in 2003, the Planning Board had recommended capping the county's growth rate at one percent. That plan was scrapped. Instead, the Council imposed impact fees on new construction across the county.

AMONG THE recommendations of the Planning Board’s staff are increases in the taxes that developers pay to finance the county’s infrastructure. The recommended school impact tax would almost triple to $21,000 per single-family detached home and the transportation tax for single-family homes would go up nearly 85 percent to $10,810. As a result, developers would have to pay $31,810 for each new house.

“The [new] taxes would more closely represent the actual cost of creating adequate public facilities,” said Karl Mortiz of the Planning Board staff’s Research and Technology Center. Moritz served on the Steering Committee that oversaw the drafting of the staff’s recommendations. “The current tax doesn’t reflect the actual cost of providing schools or roads to support development,” Moritz said.

Bob Spalding, a project manager for local builder Miller and Smith, said that the proposed increase is unreasonable.

“The building industry has supported impact taxes to some level, but the figures that have been proposed here are beyond that level,” said Spalding.

Chris Weber, the Director of Planning and Predevelopment for Federal Realty Investment, a local developer, said that the suggested hike in taxes could discourage businesses to invest in the county.

“My concern [is that] I think there’s a lack of incentivizing [the business community],” said Weber.

Also recommended by the staff are tighter standards when measuring the adequacy of schools and roads to support new development.

The report needs to use plainer language, particularly when explaining how the county measures whether infrastructure is adequate, said Jim Humphrey, a member of the Executive Committee of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery.

“The definition of ‘adequacy’ has to be understandable to the people of the county if you really want [them] to weigh in… We’re developing a growth policy that people can’t understand,” said Humphrey.

WEBER, SPALDING, AND HUMPHREY were three of 11 panelists who took part in a public forum held at the Planning Board's headquarters in Silver Spring on Saturday, May 5. The forum offered county residents the chance to hear what the panel of local land-use and development experts thought about the staff’s recommendations. It also gave the public the opportunity to express what they think about future growth in the county.

More than one hundred residents showed up for the event that was moderated by the chairman of the Planning Board, Royce Hanson.

The panelists generally praised the work of the board’s staff in constructing the report but expressed concern about different aspects of it.

Ralph Bennet is president of Frank McCarthy Architects in Takoma Park, and the former commissioner of the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. He said that he hates hearing people say that the county is nearly out of room for more development and insisted that was not true.

Bennet said that issues such as the exact nature of an impact tax are political decisions that will ultimately be left to the county council to determine, not the planning board.

“As we become more dense we have to direct growth [more precisely] than we are today,” Bennet said. “Zoning [ordinances are] a very blunt instrument.”

Bee Chester, a resident of North Bethesda, spoke when the forum opened up to questions and comments from the public. She said that a growth plan that envisions people abandoning their cars to use buses and trains to get around is unrealistic.

“People are going to use their cars no matter what you say,” said Chester. Chester also said that part of the growth planning process should include the conservation of green space.

“Let’s not destroy our tree areas, let’s not destroy our forest areas,” said Chester. “That needs to be an important part of the planning process.”

Jerry Garson, the president of the Seven Locks Citizen Association, followed Chester ’s comments with a question:

“The real question is how much growth can we take before residents are fed up?”

The Planning Board is scheduled to submit its recommendations to the County Council on May 21. The Council plans to hold a public hearing regarding the policy in mid-June and hopes to take final action on the policy by late June or July, Moritz said.