Not much, actually.
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Over the five years it took to develop and approve the White Flint Sector Plan, Friends of White Flint and other groups held hundreds of meetings with thousands of residents and other interested stakeholders. I’ve done it myself, speaking at meetings during the day, evening, weekends. I’m a volunteer.
One of the biggest community meetings ever held on the White Flint Sector Plan was our 2009 White Flint Town Hall in the auditorium of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson and Vice-Chair John Robinson explaining the Plan to the community. The NRC donated the space, the speakers donated their time, and our major cost was public advertising and outreach. Total cost? Less than $5,000.
The Planning Board’s community advisory groups alone held seventeen meetings, including several full-blown “charrettes” (“an intense period of design activity”). Here’s Ken Hurdle, a Luxmanor resident and member of the Friends of White Flint Board of Directors, marking up an area map at a Planning Board charrette:
It probably cost the Planning Board several thousand dollars to run all its meetings, including staff time, materials, and so on. The meetings were held on county property, and probably didn’t cost anything out of pocket.
Friends of White Flint’s charrettes were a lot cheaper. We held a two-day White Flint Town Hall meeting last year, bringing in ten neighborhoods for an intense, one-on-one charrette with one of the country’s leading experts in “traffic calming” and similar neighborhood traffic planning. Ian Lockwood, the consultant hired for this “intense period of design activity,” already knew what other similar communities around the nation and the world were doing, understood the White Flint Sector Plan (he designed the center median “transitway” proposal for Rockville Pike through White Flint), and is a wonderful public speaker and educator. He gave a community-wide open presentation, and worked with each neighborhood (some more than once) to draw maps of specific intersections and improvements to handle traffic issues without the usual uproar.
Total cost? Less than $5,000.
Other groups have held similar charrettes on White Flint. The White Flint Partnership, for example, held at least two multi-day charrettes with Ian Lockwood and his team from Glatting-Jackson (now Ae.com) to work on mobility issues and traffic mitigation during the development of the Plan. Their costs were probably much higher than Friends’ were.
So, when Diane Schwartz-Jones raised the possibility of another series of charrettes, this time focussed on fleshing out the details of the proposed “community amenities” to be built in the new White Flint, I was on board. Public participation is good. We’re used to it. Done it a lot. It’s really one of the things we do — public education and discussion. Always has been.
I grew a little concerned, though, when Diane suggested going over things like size and location and other things that had been debated endlessly for years. After all, we already did that. A lot. In great detail. I explained to her the example of the White Flint Park, expanded in the Sector Plan, where we discussed the park in great detail for three years, down to the level of being able to fit in a “kiddie-size” playing field on the sloped lot, but not a full-size one (ball fields are a crying need in the County). The County Council itself got into the act, working in great detail on what to put where. And now we were going to do it all over again, with a new cast of characters? “We’re not going to re-open the White Flint Sector Plan,” Diane insisted. Twice.
But still, this is MoCo. Rehashing the same old ground is what we do. Anyone who isn’t prepared for that should go to Arlington. It only gets to be a problem when the County reneges on promises. Fear that the County will promise more than it will ultimately do. That’s what drives away businesses and new revenues. And endangers the White Flint Plan.
But then Diane sent me over the edge. She had, she told the White Flint Implementation Committee on March 14, raised $80,000 from eight White Flint developers for her consultant and her charrette. She would also throw in another $20,000 in “unused” planning money.
The County is hurting. The hurt is real. It’s in the papers almost every day. We are facing a $300,000,000 budget deficit for this fiscal year. The County Executive has stepped up and offered some real proposals to handle a multi-BILLION dollar pension shortfall. (I’d like to say that the county workers’ unions have stepped up as well, but that show is run by people who ought to be on talk radio, like Gino Renne, head of the local Food and Commercial Workers union, whose solution is raise taxes. Sorry, Gino, the voters have rejected that, both by putting in a taxing limit and voting down the ambulance fee. Not an easily-available option.)
Talk to the County Council about these problems and you see the pain in their eyes. For the second year in a row, the Council has to cut, cut, cut. It’s not easy. It just hurts to see them struggle with this.
The Planning Board doesn’t have money either. Staff are being furloughed, either temporarily or permanently. They don’t have money for photocopies. And they, and other county agencies, including the Recreation Department, schools, and county libraries, are the ones who will do most of the work on the details for the public amenities laid out in the Sector Plan. Community input is vital, but it doesn’t put meat on the bones of a plan the way our dedicated professionals can.
So we’re going to hire an outside consultant for $100,000 to tell us what we already talked about, survey the country for better ideas, and bring in youth and other special groups to participate and tell us what they want?
People who have participated in this debate have strongly suggested I not rock this boat. I have listened to their concerns. I agree that public participation is good. I understand that the County Executive really likes White Flint and only wants the best for this new Plan. I understand that needed County money is already in the budget process for White Flint, and controversy won’t help. I understand that this contract is already underway. I understand that the money was voluntarily given by the developers who had chats with Diane about how great the idea is.
Nevertheless, someone has to speak truth to power here.
Is this really the highest and best use of $100,000 right now, right here?