“Smart Growth” is tough in Montgomery County

“Smart Growth” is tough in Montgomery County

Montgomery County has a justifiable reputation as a liberal, innovative county, where taxes are high and so are services. The level of education and civic involvement is very high, and the County is a poster child for the concept of “paralysis by analysis.” Once in a while, however, something crops up which prompts a blink, if not a gasp. Continuing complaints about the McDonald’s in White Flint, for example, because some homeless go there for an evening coffee.

And, of course, there’s the big current debate in the County over growth. There really is a split in the “green” side of the growth debate, between those whose vision of the environment is sylvan fields, untrampled by human feet, and those who delve into the gritty, shoulder-aching work of actually reducing emissions. So allies on paper turn into debaters on the details.

But one area in which the new, informed-but-differing growth debate is raging right now is “smart growth.” We, at Friends of White Flint, don’t often use the term “smart growth;” we prefer “New Urbanism,” which is much more narrow. We have a page on our web site, www.whiteflint.org, explaining New Urbanism.

“Smart growth,” however, is the term de jour, and lots of people are debating what it means in a county like Montgomery. Can you have “smart growth” away from the Metro? That’s the Gaithersburg West/Science City debate in a nutshell. And does “smart growth” require an urban design, changing from Montgomery’s dominant suburban character? If so, is “smart growth” worth it?

Today’s Washington Post has an article on “smart growth” in Montgomery County, by Miranda Spivack, a reporter in the Rockville Post branch who covers development issues. The article notes the difficulty of promoting “smart growth” in MoCo, and extensively quotes Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson, who was brought back from retirement to prevent another planning disaster like the Clarksburg episode, whose ramifications are still ringing through the County.

Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson at White Flint Town Hall

You can find the article here:


FoWF addressed this question in great detail in its recent report to the Montgomery County Council on the White Flint Sector Plan. www.tinyurl.com/FoWF-WFSPReport. We said, for example:

The basic change in White Flint is being forced on us by a combination of factors: the two principal causes are the expected – and unavoidable – growth in County population, and the new State mandates to reduce carbon emissions. Increasingly, County decisions will be dominated by this new carbon reduction requirement. That is not entirely a bad thing, since carbon reduction is not only the law, but a moral responsibility.

Carbon reductions, however, are very hard. The single most effective reduction in carbon comes from using transit instead of cars. Montgomery County is, and will remain for some time, principally a suburban county, dominated by cars. Changing this mindset, in even the most promising areas, will be difficult. Encouraging use of transit is most effective if done in a positive manner, by urban planning and designs which make it easy to use transit.

Arlington County, our neighbor to the south, has done just that over the last few decades. Density quadrupled near its Metro stations, using FARs of up to 10.0, but traffic congestion has been reduced. Nearby neighborhoods have been preserved. Government agencies and private employers flocked to the new walkable communities. And an area one-tenth of the county produces half the county’s tax revenues.

There are few areas in the County where the Council can grasp the same opportunity to make this transition in thinking and action to satisfy carbon requirements, while generating billions of dollars in additional County revenue, providing new and exciting community amenities, and increasing the safety and desirability of a community. The requirements include a major public transit facility, a redevelopable area near that transit facility where new density can be concentrated, and agreement and coordination among the major stakeholders in the area. White Flint is one of the few places in the County where these and other elements come together to help the Council satisfy the legal requirements while providing huge new benefits to the community and the County.

White Flint is currently a carbon-spewing, traffic-clogged, parking lot-covered environmental problem. Yet it is also a unique opportunity for Montgomery County: a place where addressing these sustainability issues will also benefit mobility, walkability, and revenues, providing an economic engine for the entire County, just as Arlington County did a few years ago. The need in White Flint is for compact, strategic, sustainable development, of the type known as “New Urbanism.”

Barnaby Zall


Barnaby Zall


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