Last night the Montgomery County Council finished its public hearings on the White Flint Sector Plan proposed by the Planning Board. Almost 90 witnesses testified to the Council, in panels of six, with statements limited to three minutes apiece.
The public hearings began on Tuesday, with representatives of many organizations, including Friends of White Flint, presenting views to the Council. (The 49-page Friends of White Flint Report on the Plan is available here.) Last night, the vast majority of witnesses were individuals, many of whom were also members of various organizations, but testifying on their own.
About three-quarters of the witnesses supported the Plan, though most also sought some changes. There was much less of the color-coordinated visual battling in the audience than on Tuesday night, probably because so many were wearing the yellow “Supporter” buttons, but the green shirts far outnumbered the yellow opponents’ shirts. It is unusual in Montgomery County to find supporters of a redevelopment plan appearing before the Council; usually it’s the opponents who have sufficient interest to turn out on a busy weeknight (much less on two nights).
A number of the witnesses were design professionals, all of whom supported the Plan. Roger Lewis, professor of architecture at the University of Maryland and “Shaping the City” columnist for the Washington Post, gave an unequivocal endorsement to the White Flint Plan: “Smart growth is the antidote to sprawl. This is a plan for young families and future generations. There is no evidence in the United States of adverse impact from well-planned smart growth development. These communities happily co-exist with density in a win-win for all sides.” Robert Youngentaub, whose company has won numerous awards as the best homebuilder in the country, said his company’s slogan is “Life Within Walking Distance,” as he praised the Plan for the same philosophy. Ed Acker, an architect from Fairfax, talked about the Plan’s “integrated design,” and “low-impact development strategy.”
One of the fascinating trends of the night was demographic: a surprising number of young people testified, most in favor of the Plan. Ordinarily, County Council meetings are the domain of those with abundant time, not the professionals whose babies cooed and kids played in the back of auditorium last night. Andrew Buffenbarger, a local political activist, talked about the need for jobs. Rui Ponte, a resident of Edgemoor, talked about how Bethesda neighborhoods had become much less dependent on cars after the walkable Bethesda Row was built near them. Cindy Zelaya, a mother from Randolph Hills, talked about the need for a diverse community, and said: “It’s the old story: build it and they will come. And for some of us, to the dismay of our spouses, we will shop.” Ryan Beible described his younger generation’s search for housing, and said that if the White Flint Plan is defeated, he will likely move out. Michael Kent, another young professional, talked about how a walkable community is a necessity for those busy, two-job families who see their home community as part of a work-life balance. Bryan Malickson, a young, unemployed attorney, asked for new job opportunities, and said “Give the ICC [Inter-County Connector, a huge new highway] something to connect to, like White Flint.” April Birnbaum, an employed attorney, doesn’t own a car, and said “I am living proof of the kind of people who will live in the new White Flint.”
Of course, not all the witnesses were from the next generation. Walter Gold, wearing his Montgomery County Fire and Rescue jacket festooned with awards, supported the Plan as he talked about the urban design lessons he had learned from 53 years as a volunteer firefighter and EMS technician: “It would be great to have a revitalized White Flint; it would be even better to have everyone enjoying it safely.”
There were a few witnesses who opposed the Plan; some of them wore the yellow “Got Schools?” T-shirts. Opponents of the Plan draft generally feared the addition of so many new residents in White Flint, wanted a new elementary school within the borders of the White Flint Sector, or felt that improving White Flint would harm their communities. On Tuesday night, in contrast, many of the opponents predicted that the County would not live up to its promises. Joseph Lavorgna, from the Board of Education, reported that the Board had voted to oppose the White Flint Plan because it did not have an elementary school site within the Sector boundaries; he said that the Board recommended taking the White Flint Park site proposed in the Plan for a new school. Charles Snyder complained about the “fairyland aspect” of getting people out of their cars: “Who says they won’t drive?” Carolyn Shawaker, former mayor of Garrett Park, warned against redistricting schools, saying that “the brilliant kids would prosper,” but that she had met a former student who worked on the White Flint Plan who told her “you wouldn’t recognize me because I was just part of the crowd at school.” Della Stallsworth, head of the Luxmanor Citizens Association, said that the White Flint Plan was full of “missed opportunities.”
As on Tuesday, there was some dismay in opponents of the current draft that so many residents supported the White Flint Plan. For example, the White Flint Community Coalition, which opposes the current Plan draft, uses as its motto: “Representing the wishes of the people of the White Flint area” but that was a bit ironic during the public hearings, when so many residents testified in support of the Plan and so few opposed it.
With the public hearings behind them, the County Council sent the Plan to its Committee on Planning, Housing, and Economic Development. The PHED Committee has tentatively scheduled its first meeting on the White Flint Plan for mid-November. The Committee has a statutory deadline of Nov. 15 to complete work on the County’s Annual Growth Policy for 2009-2011, so it is unlikely to work on the White Flint Plan before then.