Show Me the Money, Part Deux

Show Me the Money, Part Deux

The Montgomery County Council is almost done considering the White Flint Sector Plan in its committees. Next week should be the last of this round of hearings, and the all-important staff memoranda on next week’s hearings should be available tomorrow.

There are two hearings next week: on Monday, the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee takes a final looks at staging issues (meaning the timing of various infrastructure improvements and development projects). On Tuesday, the PHED Committee will hold another joint hearing with the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee on financing the whole thing. Both hearings will be in the Council Office Building in Rockville.

Staging issues have been controversial throughout the four-year development of the White Flint Sector Plan. Because the Plan is for redevelopment of an existing area, the County can’t just begin ripping up roads. Even in the economic downturn, White Flint has remained a busy retail destination — one of Maryland’s biggest and most active shopping areas. It’s just so sprawled out along Rockville Pike that people don’t always realize the huge consumer flow in the area. Plus, of course, the Pike is just so downright ugly that it’s hard to realize that it is a draw of any kind. But retail rents remain very high in White Flint, so deciding when to tear down a profitable development (even to build a new and better one) is enough to give any property owner heartburn.

The staging plan is intended, in part, to reassure these anxious stakeholders that all the moving parts will come together smoothly at the right time. At the same time, the staging plan should also give residents confidence that the necessary infrastructure to handle those renovations will be in place. And, of course, given the demographics of White Flint residents, as my more-mature friends often remind me, the staging plan will also show that “things will be done in our lifetimes,” and not just the demolition portions.

So we’re talking a thirty-year staging plan involving lots of money, both public and private, and many, many interacting priorities. It’s a tough schedule to put together.

The Planning Board divided the White Flint Plan into “phases,” with each succeeding phase triggered by events in the former phase. Thus, you can’t say that Phase One will last five years, because it might be quicker or slower, depending on how fast things actually get triggered.

There is, however, general consensus that, given Montgomery County’s permitting process, it’s not likely that things will start happening for three years or so. At the public hearings last year, one architectural firm talked about nine-year waits for development approvals.

So part of the Planning Board’s staging plan was to try to “jumpstart” renovations by “front-loading” necessary planning efforts into Phase One. Friends of White Flint, in its October 2009 Report to the Council, recommended a series of these speed-ups. Not only would that make it easier (and cheaper) to sell bonds to pay for renovations, but concentrating quick and early results in the “core” section of White Flint would demonstrate a County commitment to the Plan to both property owners and residents. It’s much easier to support something when you see visible progress on a known plan.

But, like everything, early planning and projects aren’t free. So one big element of that acceleration was to generate early funding, even before permits are granted and construction begins, to pay for early improvements. That works, if the White Flint property owners were willing to begin taxing themselves on projects that haven’t even been permitted yet. Under the Planning Board’s draft Plan, the vast majority of property owners were willing.

And that brings us to Tuesday’s joint hearing on financing the whole thing. As discussed in a post last month, the first joint hearing on financing explored a variety of financing options. You can read a Gazette article about that hearing here:

http://www.gazette.net/stories/02032010/bethnew212451_32554.php

On Tuesday, the PHED and MFP Committees are going to have to winnow the flock of options. The full Council is not likely to want to go through all the same options, since some options don’t seem to provide the elements necessary to support the Plan. Some, for example, won’t provide early funds, so there wouldn’t be any jumpstart. Jennifer Barrett, the County Financial Officer who presented the options, recognized that and tried to offer suggestions; on impact fees, for example, which are paid in a big lump, and hence are unpredictable and unsuitable for supporting bond payments, she suggested that payments could be spread over time. That would encourage developers to file plans and begin paying earlier.

But the big question is over the type of financing plans considered by the Planning Board. Remember that this was the “A-Team” first-string Planning Board of last year, including former Commissioners John Robinson and the late Jean Cryor. They were very good at looking at the financing side. Their expertise and the obvious utility of the Board’s financing proposals got the developers to support the proposed self-taxing mechanism.

Unfortunately, the County Executive reacted badly to the Planning Board’s recommendation. The first (and really only major) objection at the time was that a small portion (about ten percent) of the money raised by the new White Flint commercial development taxes would be reserved to pay for the White Flint infrastructure. This was unacceptable to the Executive Branch. “You’re going to give up a billion dollars in revenue because you don’t want to spend $100 million in White Flint?” then-Commissioner Robinson asked the Executive in a hearing. Yes, came the reply, it’s a “fairness” issue, since there are less-wealthy parts of the County which need help and we don’t want it to look like all the good things are happening in a rich area. Robinson, and everyone else in the room, just sat back in baffled wonder.

It appears the Council isn’t so willing to kill the golden goose. “Council members also said that any financing plan should ensure that money generated for infrastructure in White Flint stays in White Flint,” reports the Gazette. And the Executive seems to have walked-back from its earlier approach as well.

But it will be interesting to see what happens on Tuesday. After all, if we can’t pay for it, White Flint won’t get done.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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