Yes . . . But . . .

Yes . . . But . . .

The White Flint Sector Plan appears to be rolling toward enactment in mid-March. The Montgomery County Council is pretty much on board with the transit-oriented, sustainability concepts behind the Plan. Even the most opposed residents have quieted in favor of those a little less prone to shrieking wildly over the evils of growth.

So, given this “kumbaya”-fest, would you think something could still kill the White Flint Plan?

How about the same old fear that has bugged this process since the beginning?

The fear that the County simply won’t live up to its promises of true New Urbanism: transit-oriented, pedestrian-oriented, bike-oriented. The fear that the County will resurrect those pesky tests of how fast cars move through intersections to block development, AFTER it’s begun. The fear that someone who has bought into the Plan will be blind-sided by a car (-oriented test), and left battered and shaking, by the side of one of the new roads.

“Did someone get the tag number of that truck that hit me?” “No, but it moved pretty fast through the intersection.” “Oh, that’s ok then.”

And so it was today. Today’s meeting of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee zoomed into orbit on a curious ending note. Two Councilmembers, Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich, both of whom support the White Flint Plan (“yes, but”), brought up the Local Area Transportation Review, known as LATR. Berliner asked to have LATR tests linked to the White Flint Plan. LATR is one of those automobile-oriented tests which measure how fast cars move through intersections; if an intersection “fails,” future development is stopped unless and until some expensive remedial measures are undertaken. Most people thought we’d ended that discussion when the PHED Committee agreed that we would try to get people OUT of cars, rather than move them faster through White Flint.

But apparently that wasn’t clear after all. Only one of the two main tests (the broader PAMR) was dropped, and not necessarily LATR. Now LATR was back, perhaps not in White Flint, where we were told there wasn’t actually problem, but outside White Flint. Using LATR to block White Flint development because there was a problem at, say, Rock Springs, was one proposal. There was a quick and emphatic response to that proposal: Barbara Sears, representing the White Flint Partnership, told the Committee that using LATR that way to block White Flint improvements would result in no development in the area.  Using the LATR tests means that no one would ever know if their development would be permitted to continue, even after construction was begun. Hence, no development. No revenues. No bonds. No Plan. Cars rule.

The Committee didn’t have time to deal with the LATR questions raised late in the session, but they scheduled a new meeting for 12:30PM tomorrow. Chairman Mike Knapp said “so have your discussions in the next 26 hours.”

And they did, or at least started them. As soon as the hearing broke up, a scrum descended on Berliner and Council staffer Glenn Orlin (both right below), concerned about this new application of LATR:

Berliner in crowd

Eventually, the discussions expanded to the point that Berliner and Orlin, joined by Elrich, sat down with a group of about fifteen property owners’ representatives to discuss the problem. County Executive officials jumped in, including Diane Schwartz-Jones, Gary Ehrenreich, and Gary Stith. And a few residents, including Ed Rich, from Old Farm, and Della Stallsworth from Luxmanor, listened as well.

After meeting

The discussion revealed several problems with the proposal to re-impose LATR. People were using terms to mean different things, the most important being LATR itself. Orlin, for example, pointed out that “we haven’t figured out whether to use that in White Flint,” where Elrich said that he thought LATR itself wouldn’t be used, but some other test would be. Then Orlin noted that LATR would not be used IN White Flint, but would be used outside White Flint in a way to stop development if some effect were observed outside White Flint. Others thought LATR wouldn’t affect White Flint at all because, as transportation planner Dan Hardy observed to the Committee earlier, the Planning Board would be using more sophisticated tests throughout the area anyway as part of the biennial review process, so there wasn’t any need for LATR at all. Orlin: the Council’s going to change LATR in a month anyway, as part of the Growth Policy review, so why worry about it now?

In addition, there was a substantial amount of miscommunication on other topics; the Executive’s financing proposals are not sufficiently developed to allow anyone (even their representatives) to determine what would happen and when; and no one could agree on how the staging proposals would be implemented. Bottom line = in this discussion, no one knew what anyone else was really thinking about. And sometimes didn’t appear to know what their own proposals were.

“Why would anyone even START without a comfort level,” Barbara Sears asked. “Because we will have a development district,” responded Diane Schwartz-Jones. “We shouldn’t be uncertain about projects in the Plan,” said Elrich, “the uncertainty’s outside the district. The problem’s going to be in Rock Spring.” Planning Board staff said there wouldn’t be a problem satisfying the County’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (otherwise known as the Growth Policy) in White Flint “at build-out.” Orlin: “there will be problems if you go out a ways, and everything is part of the Growth Policy.” Elrich: “No, I need a clear path forward. I need assurance that we’ll move forward, and not stop part way in between.”

There was unanimity on one point: if this one, automobile-centered test was resuscitated, no one could be certain any more what the County would be doing at any given time during the 30-year implementation of the White Flint Plan. 

And all that generated fear, which is the one thing that can kill the White Flint Plan so close to completion.

The Plan had been moving forward rapidly because people generally understood what was intended and they were confident that things had been tied up enough to generate some certainty. But the heat of interjecting yet another automobile-oriented emphasis into the White Flint Plan was enough to evaporate that confidence.

Tune in tomorrow for another installment in our continuing saga: “how the car turns.”

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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