Tempers Flare at PHED Committee Meeting

Tempers Flare at PHED Committee Meeting

The seventh floor hearing room in the Montgomery County Council office building in Rockville has some of the world’s most uncomfortable chairs. Yesterday, mine had a back that wasn’t quite attached, meaning that I was pretty much slumped back, looking like I was watching TV in a recliner¬†while the Redskins were losing again. It can also be hot and stuffy, and newly-elected Council President Nancy Floreen herself got up to adjust the windowshades so the audience wasn’t squinting that much.

But none of that mattered yesterday, since the discussions were riveting. The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee was continuing its worksessions on the White Flint Sector Plan. Mostly the Plan is sailing through Committee. Committee staffer Marlene Michaelson praised all the work done by the Planning Board and its huge citizen advisory groups: “The designs are very good.” But Michaelson, and the Committee, had substantial problems with “how the issues are presented.” One councilmember asked: “Is that parcel pink, peach¬†or salmon?” Another replied, “I’m not sure what color it is on that map, but it’s a different color on this map.” “Maybe we should move the color guide next to the map itself so we can tell the difference?” came the reply. And Michaelson’s biggest complaint was that citizens would have to look in two different places to figure out the complicated zoning and master plan limits for a particular property.

But then the Committee started to go property by property through several of the “districts” which the Planning Board had set out in the Plan, and some fireworks sparkled skyward. Normally Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson is a grandfatherly, professorial figure, prone to long and complicated descriptions of long and complex planning arcana. But yesterday he slammed both hands down on the witness table and shouted: “That was NOT the rationale!” when Michaelson tried to explain her interpretation of what the Planning Board intended for a particular property. He then left the room, only to return a short time later and rejoin the discussion.

The disconnect was between the Board’s four-year odyssey preparing the intricacies of the White Flint Plan, the new CR Zone, and the accompanying Design Guidelines, and the Committee’s (and Committee staff’s) focus on a few sticking points which just seemed to be out of place. These three interlocking instructions give enormous flexibility in urban and architectural design, while promoting more residential development and sustainability in a walkable environment. That is the promise of the new White Flint Plan, and the Council (with a few exceptions) seems to buy into the dream.

But moving piecemeal through the details of the Plan invites Councilmembers to nitpick: “What if we moved it here?” was one question. Throughout the session, Michaelson and the Planning Board staff repeatedly endlessly that the purpose of a master plan (like the White Flint Plan) was not necessarily to be exact for each detail, but to lay out the overall pattern. One observer said the Councilmembers were “down in the weeds” when they needed to see the whole thing first. You could just sense the professional planners and attorneys in the room, who can read a description on paper and just see it brought forth intact and in context in their heads, being frustrated with we slower mortals. “Bring more pictures,” I told one planner, pointing out that the worst thing that happened at the hearing was at the beginning, when they rolled the big screen into the ceiling and didn’t show any pictures. (By the way, we have pictures of all the projects and areas being discussed, with links to both the project proposals and community reactions, on our main website, under White Flint Plan.)

Committee Chair Mike Knapp pointed out, indirectly, that the schedule had slipped. Some councilmembers had hoped to finish the White Flint Plan before the upcoming December recess, but that is not to be. Knapp noted that the financing and funding decisions will be a “January conversation.” Financing was a lively part of yesterday’s discussion, and it wasn’t even on the agenda. Councilmember Marc Elrich, who has expressed substantial skepticism about the transportation elements in the Plan, asked what the developers would get for their “upzoning,” and Michaelson replied that “the ones who are benefitting are the ones who are going to pay.” Hanson jumped in to point out that the financing piece was part of the connections between the various elements of the Plan, which prompted Elrich to comment on the “many moving parts” they were being asked to consider.

Elrich also sparked more lively debate when he criticized the North Bethesda Market project, now nearing completion on Rockville Pike, with its 289′ high tower. This was beyond the 1/4 mile area near the Metro station where growth should be concentrated, Elrich charged. “It isn’t smart growth if you just ignore it.” But Michaelson pointed out that the tower was already approved under existing rules, and the Planning staff noted that these areas, though more than 1/4 mile from the Metro station, were also on Rockville Pike, which made them more accessible to transit. Elrich then pointed out that he wouldn’t support changing “anything below Edson Lane. That’s the logical place to draw the line, and you have to draw it somewhere.”

The PHED Committee will have another worksession on Thursday, starting at 9:30AM and running through the rest of the day. The Committee plans to continue discussing the individual districts and the projects proposed for each block, as well as the financing issue and will likely return to some of the transportation issues dealt with in previous meetings.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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