Archives January 2010

Down to the Wire With the PHED Committee

The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council is considering the White Flint Sector Plan. At the last PHED Committee meeting, on January 19, County Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner pleaded for more time to study the Plan and resolve some lingering questions. Committee Chair Mike Knapp pointed out that the Committee had to move forward on the White Flint Plan by February 1. That’s tomorrow, and the PHED Committee has another hearing — its sixth in this series — scheduled on transporation and land use issues in the White Flint Plan.

Surprise! They’re not going to meet their Feb. 1 deadline. They have another hearing on February 8 scheduled, beyond tomorrow’s hearing.

As usual, the Committee staff has prepared memoranda explaining their positions on several issues remaining for Committee consideration. The transportation (mobility) memo is here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100201/20100201_PHED2A.pdf

The biggest lingering issue in transportation continues to be the clash between the older, automobile-oriented tests and the newer, transit-oriented, walkable White Flint Plan. (For more background, see the post “30 Seconds Over White Flint” and others below.) Still not resolved.

The staff memo shows that progress has been made, and without killing the White Flint Plan in the process. The older test projects that cars will take 32 more seconds to travel through the new White Flint Sector (from Grosvernor to Twinbrook Metro stations) than without the new Rockville Pike boulevard; this is known as Level of Service – E (“LOS-E”) as opposed to LOS-D. During its consideration of the Annual Growth Policy last year, the County Council adopted a chart which seems not to allow LOS-E. So the Committee staff has been trying to find those 30 seconds of car speed through White Flint.

The calculations aren’t exactly paralllel, so it’s hard to tell how many seconds the revised Committee staff proposal has made up, but a wild guess might be about 28 seconds (staff’s proposal makes up about 88% of the LOS-E v. LOS-D gap). The staff recognizes this by noting that the results are “high LOS-E.” Allllllmost there.

The difference was in shifting more car traffic to other modes (transit, walking, bicycles) sooner, through what is called Traffic Demand Management. TDM has been very successful in White Flint, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the biggest employer in White Flint) has already achieved a 50% non-automobile commute ratio. The new North Bethesda Center, being built by LCOR at the White Flint Metro Station, is already committed to a 50% non-automobile goal. On the other hand, as discussed a few posts ago, the County Executive has taken away funding from the county’s Transportation Management Districts, the very agencies which have helped to move people out of their cars. So there’s a risk that this ambitious plan is doomed by the budget squeeze.

But the Committee still has a fundamental decision: no matter how the staff tries to squeeze this square peg of a transit-oriented White Flint into the round hole of the car-oriented Level of Service test, the more it looks like fudging. Everyone knows the car tests are going to be thrown out in a few months anyway; they don’t work anywhere in the country, and they can’t even be accurately described by those who use them. The problem is that no substitute is available right now, and the ones being considered are still . . . you guessed it . . . based on how fast cars move. Not on what people seem to agree is the future: you have to reduce carbon emissions, and the only realistic way to do that is through sustainable planning techniques.

With statutory limits on carbon emissions coming down on the County like a ton of bricks, the Council is going to have to move the County out of the automobile trap. The White Flint Plan is the first really modern plan on the Council’s agenda. Our leaders need to decide if we’re going to move forward, or back to the 1960’s. Our Council is pretty smart, and they’re really trying, so it’s highly unlikely that the Council will decide “Hey, let’s just scrap this whole sustainability thing. With all the snow, no one’s going to worry about climate change anyway. Let’s choose cars!”

Putting it bluntly, this whole exercise is just postponing what is going to happen in the future anyway. But they still need to vote tomorrow.

There are other transportation issues coming up tomorrow as well. The staff has reiterated its request that the Council adopt the northern site for the new commuter rail (MARC) station, and reject the Planning Board’s suggestion of a southern site at Nicholson Court. The Planning Board viewed the Nicholson Court site as a way to bring the benefits of White Flint to the very large, but often slighted Randolph Hills community just to the east of the sector boundaries. Randolph Hills has a relatively young population, and is much more diverse and lower income than the rest of the White Flint area, and it has usually been ignored in County planning. Randolph Hills made two requests in the White Flint Plan: the Nicholson Court MARC station, and a new school at Rocking Horse Center. Both requests were rejected by the PHED Committee last year. The staff has now reviewed the commuter rail station question again, and now projects that there may not be a need for the station at all. So the staff recommendation is either the northern site or nothing at all.

The Committee staff also submitted a memo on land use issues. You can find that memo here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100201/20100201_PHED2B.pdf

Unlike the transportation issues, the remaining land use issues are fairly non-controversial and small, including such things as conforming zoning across particular properties.

Barnaby Zall

Ken Hurdle for Planning Board

Five candidates are vying for the seat on the Montgomery County Planning Board left by the death of former Commissioner Jean Cryor last year. The County Council will appoint someone to the seat within a few weeks. Several of the candidates have prior Planning Board and county agency experience, including the front-runner Norman Dreyfus, head of the company which developed the Leisure World seniors community in Silver Spring.

But the best candidate for the seat is Ken Hurdle, a resident of Luxmanor in White Flint, and the Secretary of the Board of Directors of Friends of White Flint. Hurdle, an architectural consultant and long-time community leader, is the only candidate who combines a traditional planning background with a resident’s perspective and, most importantly, a thorough understanding of the New Urbanism principles which are driving the County’s future plans.

Ken Hurdle in charette

 (Ken Hurdle, standing, center, in Planning Board design session)

The County brought Dr. Royce Hanson out of retirement to be Chairman of the Planning Board in order to solve the crises generated by the Clarksburg development miscues, but he also brought a welcome revolution in County thought: if the County was going to grow (and there’s no question that people will continue to flock to Montgomery County), then the County ought to use the most modern and sustainable development principles. Not just more of the same. The critical factors are not just economic, but sustainability, including the looming hammers of state (and likely federal) carbon reduction laws. It’s difficult to overstate the impact these laws will have on Montgomery County in the next thirty years, forcing hard choices on the County. Recognizing the needs of the future, Dr. Hanson revamped the Planning process to reflect sustainability and to meet the carbon challenges.

But Hanson didn’t do that by just mouthing empty platitudes about being “green.” After all, it’s easy to “talk green,” but, as the great American philosopher Kermit the Frog says: “It isn’t easy being green.” Simply cutting off development wouldn’t be enough for true sustainability, and it would have been an economic disaster.

Instead Hanson embraced a new urban design theory: New Urbanism. Actually, this is an old design, one used for thousands of years, of putting the things needed for daily living within easy walking distance. It has only been within the last sixty years that the development of the carbon-spewing automobile has given rise to the “sprawl and crawl” which characterizes most American suburbs. And with it, the rapid increase in carbon which the new state laws attack. New Urbanism is transit-oriented, which, together with the compactness of the urban designs, naturally leads to less car useage, without costly subsidies or draconian limits on driving (a la Central London). (For more on New Urbanism, see our main web site at www.whiteflint.org.)

It’s a simple, elegant design principle, and almost everyone in the County development process embraces it now. But it wasn’t like that only a few years ago. It took Dr. Hanson to bring New Urbanism to the County, and to educate our leaders about its simplicity and its necessity.

Unfortunately, Dr. Hanson is leaving the Planning Board when his term expires this year. It’s important to have people on the Planning Board to carry on his legacy. The current members of the Board, Joe Alfandre, Amy Presley, and Marye Wells-Harley, have already been educated; Alfandre is a nationally-recognized leader in the field. But the new candidates for Jean Cryor’s seat should also have demonstrated commitments to New Urbanism. With all the County’s pressing needs, there isn’t a lot of time for a new Board member to get up to speed on this basic principle.

The candidates for the open seat on the Planning Board are all stellar quality. Of the candidates, however, only Ken Hurdle has demonstrated that commitment to New Urbanism, both in knowledge and action.

That’s why the Board of Directors of Friends of White Flint, made up equally of representatives of residents, businesses and property owners in White Flint, unanimously endorsed Ken Hurdle for the open Planning Board seat.

A Washington Post story, by the indefatigable Miranda Spivack, is available here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/27/AR2010012702491.html

Barnaby Zall

Financing Options for White Flint

Live-blogging from the January 26, 2010 joint meeting of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee and the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee of the Montgomery County Council. The topic is financing of the White Flint Sector Plan, a key component in any master plan, and critical in an innovative, complicated and multi-stage Plan such as for White Flint.

Councilmember Marc Elrich: we need to be cognizant of the danger of putting in the development before the infrastructure. Heard from residents, but the biggest divide is whether they’re going to put in the infrastructure. Optimists believe it will be in place, and the pessimists believe the County won’t do its job. Developers have to accept that there’s not going to be a whole Plan for what’s going to be in front of your property. We’re going to need a broad and comprehensive approach which is different from what we’ve done in the past.

Council Staff Mike Faden: public sector will be expected to pay about $300 million, or one-third of the overall costs of the infrastructure. County Executive Staff Jennifer Barrett: options for financing. Impact taxes, paid at the time of permit applications, are an existing mechanism, but they are an unreliable source of funding. Have talked about making it more reliable by imposing a higher rate, but allowing it to be paid over time. Possible to secure a revenue stream for bonds that way, but not a highly attractive option. Council Staffer Glenn Orlin: impact taxes are usually reserved for general obligation bonds, so if you take them here, they won’t be available for other projects. Barrett: every dollar you take here will take away from something else.

Councilmember Nancy Floreen: this is what we do now. We’ve haven’t built the county infrastructure that we need now. We’re going to have to come to grips with this. Anything we collect from this environment won’t be available elsewhere, and other communities are in need as well. There’s no silver bullet that will eliminate these kinds of trade-offs. Only question is how you can create incentives so that the financing vehicle makes things happen in a way that works for the private sector? This is the problem. This is a tried and tested mechanism.

Floreen: what about the Montrose Parkway? We need to finish that. Orlin: we already have $42 million for that. Barrett: we already included that piece in our claculations.

Committee Chairman Mike Knapp: we need to look at the complementarity of these. Floreen: is that word?

Barrett: another option is other taxes, including specific taxes. Parking tax. Voluntary consent taxes, as in development district. Will be difficult and complex, but we’re trying to be creative. Unlikely to do this to secure debt. Elrich: could you create an excise tax on square foot on the ground? Faden: can’t be a property tax. Could because it’s offered for rent, but not just to have it. Orlin: how you use it. Trip generation rates, possibly. Elrich: wouldn’t that be similar to stormwater tax? Faden: it’s actually a fee, not a tax. Elrich: could you generate something on trip generation rates? Faden: no.

Barrett: Development districts. Two now in Germantown are working well. Small districts, all residential rental and some commercial. Require consent so are hard to get. Special obligation bonds. Increment above existing taxes. So nothing taken away from county budget, because everything else is still available. This floats above the county tax rate. Need consent of 80% of owners and 80% of value. Faden: bond counsel thinks the new state development district is needed, and he has the last word. Elrich: do we have any idea of what percentage of property owners are interested and engaged in this? Barrett: haven’t had that conversation. Council staffer Marlene Michaelson: don’t know if it’s 80% but have had more property owners come forward in this Plan than in any other Plan in my experience to say they would share in the costs. Barrett: usually a long negotiation process. Elrich: need to have highly-motivated people to make this happen.

Barrett: Special taxing districts, which are a little different. A couple of noise abatement districts to pay for noise walls by the Beltway. Faden: line-drawing is critical. You can exempt residential just by drawing a line around it. Berliner: don’t have the consent issue here, so we could get a secure revenue stream based on build-out? Barrett: would have to tax at existing assessed value. Faden: parking and urban districts are special taxing districts. Berliner: are you considering going to the Attorney General for an opinion on legality? Faden: it’s irrelevant to bond counsel, so no. Historically, the last time around the Attorney General agreed with us, but it didn’t matter. Bond counsel had their own ideas.

Barrett: Tax Increment Financing (TIF): generally used for blighted areas. Reaching into your own resources to fund this; so typically used in urban blighted areas. Faden: there’s a provision that it doesn’t count against County Charter limit. Elrich: doesn’t generate new revenues. Barrett: no, just uses what’s there.

Barrett: Special Assessment: long and complicated. We haven’t used this in some time. Very problematic. General County Funding Sources: useable for some specific projects.

Floreen: bring up Dave Freishtat, who’s our expert on financing. [Note: Freishtat is a member of the Board of Directors of Friends of White Flint, representing the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.] Freishtat: bond counsel thought that revenue financing could be used in at least some parts of this Plan. Floreen: flesh these out between different approaches to revenue. Freishtat: there are a lot of possible sources. Floreen: I’d like to explore those. Barrett: my list was for lease payments. Elrich: isn’t it a question of what you’d use as a revenue stream? Could they secure it with a particular mechanism? Freishtat: there’s a whole laundry list of sources, and what you can use the bonds for. Elrich: I’m good with that. But question is who’s going to pay you back? I’m still not clear. Whose property is paying for this? Staff: if we run into problems with special obligation bonds, we can go through a couple of steps, create a revenue authority, and then pay for them that way.

Trachtenberg: I’m sure when we reconvene in a couple of weeks, we’ll go through all those. Council President [Floreen] made it clear that we would deal with that. Interest in having conversation around staging and timing of infrastructure in relation to fiscal formula. Choice on development districts, at least in general terms and on opinion of bond counsel. Examples of practices in other jurisdictions. Potential for revenue authority.

Berliner: unanimous view that financing plan will not be part of the WF Plan itself? Trachtenberg: yes. Berliner: I would like an agreement on what level of specificity we are seeking, so we can assure our community that we have a firm commitment for a financing plan. Trachtenberg: reasonable part of the conversation. Another part would be the oversight of a few weeks ago. Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson: we’ll prepare a presentation on our thinking about timing and staging.

Barnaby Zall

So how ARE we going to pay for all this?

Live-blogging from the January 26, 2010 joint meeting of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee and the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee of the Montgomery County Council. The topic is financing of the White Flint Sector Plan, a key component in any master plan, and critical in an innovative, complicated and multi-stage Plan such as for White Flint.

PHED Committee Chairman Mike opened the hearing by saying that they would be “starting” to look at financing. All of us are in agreement that a financing plan needs to be moving on a parallel track so the residents of the area understand how the infrastructure required for the development will be achieved. The details can be worked out over the next 12 months or so. Objective for today is just to lay out elements of financing. What are potential mechanisms that exist and what are the general goals and objectives we should look at in any financing plan and what is the scope of the resources to ultimately have this Plan be successful. So goal is not to have a financing plan available, but to give council information to help them understand how the pieces work together.

Councilmember Trachtenberg, Chair of MFP Committee: How do we provide a level of assurance and a level of asurance to get the infrastructure that is critical to the success of the Plan. Clearly will set some general principles in motion. One to start today is the sharing between private and public sectors around cost. Another worksession in a few weeks. About tomorrow and this will define how things get done in Montgomery County.

Diane Schwartz-Jones, representing the County Executive’s Office: state law requires us to identify costs. Our best estimates of pricing for public sector. Pricing for library is not included. [Note: memo is available here: http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100126/20100126_MFPPHED1.pdf]

Councilmember Berliner: everything we’re looking at is conceptual at this time. Depends on staging decisions. Assuring that the revenue is there when it’s needed to fund the infrastructure. Create the assurance that the infrastructure is available in a timely manner.

February 9 is the next worksession on financing.

Michael Faden, council staff: these are not hard numbers. These are just to give a general idea of what is involved. Knapp: orders of magnitude. Council President Nancy Floreen: at what point in time do you have sufficient certitude to put this into play? Do you have to know every element and all the players before you put this into a Plan? Clarksburg’s a problem because of this element, and something should have been placed. Do you have to have certainty about everything before you can get anything done?

County Executive staffer Jennifer Barrett: yes. We get a lot of flexibility because of our special obligation bonds and investors need a great deal of certainty before they’ll buy those bonds. Does not count against any county spending limits. General obligation bonds are different and our aim is to do GO financing here. Very much focussed on the ability to deliver not only the infrastructure but on the development that provides everything. You can start levying taxes to build up revenue before then. Floreen: so to have bonding capacity, we need certainty as to the properties? Barrett: Revenue stream. Knapp: some variability in how much certainty you need, but one of the elements is what financing is available.

Floreen: 20-50 year process and hoping to get the right tools. Much be realistic. Can’t control all these things. Small subset of property owners who have the right conditions to make investments in their properties. So getting all those parts right is hard.

Councilmember Marc Elrich: taxing now? Is this putting the money aside now or just putting it in the general fund? Barrett: special rules for special purpose funds. Elrich: we’ve got other plans that are competing for money and I don’t want this project gobbling up funds that are needed in other areas as well. This only works if the funds come from where we want them to, and the development to pay for it comes through as well. Barrett: it’s like bond covenants.

Faden: seven principles to have in mind on P. 2 of the memo.

l) Protect the Charter property tax limit

2) Secure revenue stream to pay off bonds

a) feasibility of bond funding: quality of bonds; guarantee that development will occur

3) Maintain County bond rating and good name; low risk exposure to County

4) Solid legal basis –avoid challenge to financing mechanisms

     a) Property owners

     b) IRS

5) Timely availability ofrevenue to produce infrastructure before/at development

6) Uniform/equitable approach regarding who pays

7) Clarity necessary for public understanding, acceptance

Faden: that was a problem in Clarksburg; didn’t get the bonds out soon enough for infrastructure. Floreen: we disagree. Barrett: I have a problem issuing bonds secured by bare dirt. Several other problems where permits were issued before infrastructure in place. Floreen: perspective is that bonds need certainty. Faden: mutual feedback there; each side needs certainty from the other side.

Barnaby Zall

Who REALLY Runs the World?

Waiting for the upcoming joint meeting of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development, and Management and Fiscal Policy Committees of the Montgomery County Council on the financing of the White Flint Sector Plan. And, out int he audience, a few of us are discussing who really runs the world.

As society has gotten more complicated, a new ruling class has arisen. Hidden, quiet, with a reputation for probity, but truly non-descript. But if you ask everyone involved with a complex project, they’ll agree:

 Accountants run the world.

But today, at least, the curtain is pulled back even further. In public finance, like the financial implications of the White Flint Sector Plan, even the powerful accountants quail before an even mightier power, one whose pronouncements have the force of a hammer blow on any discussion, whose disapproval can block even the most unstoppable force. Who are these mysterious masters of the universe?

“bond lawyers.”

Without bonds, projects don’t work. With bond lawyers’ opinions, no bonds will sell. So . . .

We now return you to our regularly-scheduled hearing.

Barnaby Zall

Show Me the Money!

The next public hearing on the White Flint Sector Plan will be tomorrow, at a joint hearing of the Management and Fiscal Policy, and Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committees of the Montgomery County Council. The hearing will be held at the Council Building in Rockville at 2PM.

The joint hearing will consider one of the touchiest, and most complex parts of the White Flint Plan: how to pay for it. The Council staff has prepared a background memo, which can be found here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100126/20100126_MFPPHED1.pdf

The memo notes:

There appears to be a consensus among the Executive, Planning Board, and stakeholders that the revised White Flint sector plan should not decide how to finance the many public facility improvements that will be needed to sustain the intensive land development which the proposed plan would encourage. However, almost every possible financing mechanism wiIl require some kind of Council action -legislative, budgetary, or both -relatively soon after this plan is approved. Therefore, before the Council acts on this plan, Councilmembers, the Planning Board, and interested parties would benefit from reviewing the financing mechanisms that can be used to realize the plan’s goals.

Some of the proposed mechanisms include Tax Increment Financing (originally proposed by the Planning Board, but panned by Council staff because it looks bad — “usually used for urban blight”), impact taxes paid to obtain development permits, and development districts. The County Executive’s comments from last October are again reprinted in the staff memo; in those comments, the Executive is essentially concerned that it not be restricted in using money generated in White Flint, even to build White Flint infrastructure or pay bonds. Instead the Executive wanted to be able to divert 100% of all White Flint monies to other County priorities. In light of consistent objections that the Executive’s “fairness” concerns might kill the goose that lays the golden egg, the Executive may have walked back those comments, at least to the extent of committing to pay off bonds.

Last week, at the request of Councilmembers Berliner and Elrich, the PHED Committee delayed consideration of the White Flint Plan until this and later hearings. PHED Committee Chair Mike Knapp, however, pointed out that there is essentially a “drop dead” deadline for the White Flint Plan of February 1.

The Committee has scheduled only 90 minutes tomorrow to review these complex questions. The PHED Committee will meet again on February 1 to finalize its view of the Plan (with another financing hearing on February 9, which likely won’t delay final consideration of the Plan by the Council).

Barnaby Zall

Friends of White Flint Election Schedule

The Board of Directors of Friends of White Flint met last week to set an election schedule for 2010. The FoWF Board is equally divided between residents, business representatives, and representatives of property owners, and one Director from each class is elected each year. Only FoWF members in good standing (known as “Friends”) can vote or be nominated as Directors.

Because of all the activities surrounding the Montgomery County Council’s consideration of the White Flint Sector Plan, the Board voted to change the date of the FoWF Annual Meeting (at which the new Directors are elected and seated) from January to April 26, at 4:30. The Annual Meeting will be held at the offices of Lerner Corporation, 2000 Tower Oaks Blvd, 8th Floor; this is a LEED-certified building and one of the greenest in Montgomery County.

Because the Annual Meeting and voting schedules were extended, the Board also decided to automatically extend all memberships which expired before April until April 19, so that all Friends from last year would be able to vote in the upcoming elections. So if your membership was due for renewal between January 1 and April 18, 2010, your new renewal date will be April 19, 2010.

If you are not now a Friend, please join us. You can apply on-line at our main web site: www.whiteflint.org. You must be a fully-paid member by March 15 to be eligible.

On the new schedule, eligibility notices will be sent to all Friends in good standing on February 1. If you believe you are eligible to vote, but don’t receive a notice by mid-February, please let us know as soon as possible. You can contact me at bzall@friendsofwhiteflint.org. (Please note: associate members are not eligible to be nominated or to vote.)

Nominations will be accepted for review by the FoWF Board until March 15. Nominations must be accompanied by candidate statements explaining the nominee’s qualifications and can include a message to voting members about why the nominee should be elected. All statements will be publicly available in the FLOG. Nominations will be closed on March 15.

Ballots will be available on April 5, and must be completed, signed and returned with a postmark of no later than Monday, April 19.

The elections and voting process was explained in more detail in some earlier posts. If you have any questions, please contact me at bzall@friendsofwhiteflint.org, or your class Co-Chair: Suzanne Hudson for residents (suzanne.hudson@friendsofwhiteflint.org) or Evan Goldman (evan.goldman@friendsofwhiteflint.org).

Barnaby Zall

A Confidence-Booster for Montgomery County

In the four years it has taken to develop the White Flint Sector Plan, Friends of White Flint and other organizations held hundreds of meetings and discussions with thousands of Montgomery County residents. Sometimes we were holding several meetings in one night. For a while my rec room was set up for resident meetings for days in a row (then my wife complained, so I took all the chairs out and put the couch and other furniture back in place). And we had on-line discussions, public forums, and lots and lots of e-mail. Plus, we had public opinion polling.

So we knew that there was some opposition to the White Flint Plan. What was kind of surprising was the nature of that opposition.

Why did people oppose the White Flint Plan? It wasn’t, as we thought at the beginning, because we were proposing a radical new kind of development for “down-county,” on an urban model, transit-oriented, with an expectation of greatly reduced carbon emissions. We thought that would be a major sticking point, and it was for a few people. Mostly those who really longed for the good ol’ days of “freedom of the roads,” when you’d leap in your Chevy and cruise at 85 through the wee hours of the morning on the Utah desert, with Don McLean’s “American Pie” blasting out of the radio, which crackled and hissed because it was on Wolfman Jack broadcasting from Tijuana, thousands of miles away. (Yes, I confess to having done that college “road trip” and loving it.)

But today, we found, most people are okay with the vision for White Flint. They get it, that we need to do something different, and they recognized that what we were trying was a bit of a risk, but it was worth a try.

No, what the real opposition sprang from was a different emotion. It was a deep-seated opposition, based not on knee-jerk emotions or incomplete information. It was based on, in some cases, decades of experience with Montgomery County politics and governance. Concern, or fear, really. Fear that Montgomery County always promises more from development than it delivers. Fear that we would get a great plan, and everyone would begin working on it, and then something would happen a few years down the road, and there’d be a little change, then another, and another. Until somehow, someway, what was promised would vanish, and people would argue over whether it really existed.

This was a genuine concern. When I discussed this with County Executive Ike Leggett, he agreed and said “it’s a valid point.”

That’s actually the root of many of our problems in White Flint today. The 1992 North Bethesda-Garrett Park Master Plan, for example, was pretty sophisticated in its day. It promised transit-oriented development. But what it produced was . . . Rockville Pike today.

And as I mentioned over the last few days, in a few posts below, there’s a basis for that anxiety to spring forth anew about the White Flint Plan. Staff recommendations for delays or cutbacks. Funding cutoffs for the Transportation Management Districts (which are supposed to ease the transition from cars to transit). Proposals to take the money generated by White Flint and use ALL of it elsewhere, instead of paying for the infrastructure in White Flint that’s going to generate the money down the road. (Call it “eating your seed corn.”)

So it is with some degree of relief that I can say that at least a partial solution may be in sight. Yesterday County Councilmembers Duchy Trachtenberg and Mike Knapp, and others, introduced legislation to create an “expediter” for White Flint. (Not a czar, but an advisor, a “point of contact” and a coordinator for the implementation of the Plan.)

The bill would require the County Executive to designate a county employee as the person who will coordinate the financing and development of County infrastructure in White Flint, advise the County and State about “any action needed to expedite the financing and development of County infrastructure,” “serve as primary point of contact for residents and businesses,” and “take or recommend any other action needed to assure that County infrastructure keeps pace with private development.”

In other words, the bill would solve one of Montgomery County’s big problems: too many cooks, with too many hotpads insulating them from direct accountability. At least now there would be one person with the responsibility for infrastructure, and the accessibility for residents and businesses (who often get lost in the shuffle of complicated planning processes).

Accountability, accessibility, action. A good prescription. Would it be a guarantee of success? No, but it’s a good start, and it’s precisely what’s needed to resolve many peoples’ concerns.

A confidence booster. Because that’s what’s generating a lot of the opposition to the White Flint Plan. A lack of confidence. So something that boosts confidence in the likelihood of success will go far in spreading oil on troubled waters.

At its meeting on January 14, the Board of Friends of White Flint voted to endorse the Trachtenberg/Knapp bill. Several resident organizations, including Friends of White Flint, will appear today at the County Council Building to support the bill’s introduction. You can find a copy of the Friends of White Flint statement here: Statement on Trachtenberg-Knapp Bill

[Update: here’s the Gazette article on the bill, quoting Ken Hurdle, a member of the Friends of White Flint Board of Directors: http://www.gazette.net/stories/01272010/bethnew222435_32550.php  ] 

Barnaby Zall

Where’s the Fire (Station)?

Live blogging from the January 19, 2010 meeting of the PHED Committee. Committee staffer Marlene Michaelson is working through her memo to the Committee: http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100119/20100119_PHED2.pdf.

The Fire Station and library site, were both recommended without discussion. The issue of co-location, on P. 2 of the memo, was discussed briefly, with Committee Chair Mike Knapp asking about the actual details of how co-location would work. The county Executive, represented by Diane Schwartz-Jones, said that it was already trying to work out the details. Nancy Floreen asked about the No. Bethesda Recreation Center, which “has been stuck, dead in the water, for 15 years.” Is there money for a building and construction? So we’re going to wait another six years or more? Davis Library renovation is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2011. Michaelson said a full-size library might be recommended later. Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson said Wall Park would be a good location for a rec center, in conjunction with the aquatic center there. But co-locating elsewhere might also work to maximize good facilities without duplicating. Putting it on the west side is a good idea, but other things could work.

For properties south of Edson Lane, the staff recommended lowering heights and densities below that recommended in the draft Plan in order to provide a “better transition” to nearby neighborhoods and the same arguments were made for changes in heights and zoning at the White Flint Mall. Robbie Breuer, speaking for the Mall, pointed out that the proposal to change the  heights and character of the area was just raised for the first time last week, and not in the three years, the Mall has been working with the community on transitions. Don’t count on an artificial line to create compatibility, Breuer argued, let the architects and planners work, since one of their criteria is compatibility. Natalie Goldberg, from the communities just south of the Mall, said “we agree.” But she wants “our kids to get to know the kids from the” new residential areas  being planned at the Mall, so she wanted changes anyway. Michaelson said it would be easy to add language to the Plan that, as you go south from the Mall, there should be preponderance of residential development over retail. Councilmember Roger Berliner, sitting in with the Committee, asked about heights.

“Balance” and 30 Seconds

Live blogging from the PHED Committee meeting of January 19, 2010. The topic right now is “land use” vs. traffic congestion. Current law requires a “balance”, measured by tests which calculate how long it takes cars to move specific distances along major roads throughout North Bethesda. For more on these tests, see the prior posts below.

Committee staffer Glenn Orlin is describing his application of these tests, noting that the Council still requires the use of these tests. When he applied them to all of North Bethesda, the White Flint Plan was “out of balance.” Alternative approaches of increasing “mode share” (the percentage of commuters who use something other than cars) or limiting density in White Flint did not bring the area into “balance,” even if it was assumed that no commuters used cars. And limiting density had almost no effect either. So Orlin said the alternative was only to do Phase One of the Plan. That would bring the Plan into “balance” at least at the beginning.

Orlin then noted that they had been told that no developers would go forward with improvements in White Flint because they could not get financing. So Orlin discussed exceptions which past Councils have made in these “balance” tests, including Potomac. One way or another the Plan needs to come into “balance.” Committee staffer Marlene Michaelson added that if the Committee could never find a way to get ‘balance,” it could revise the Plan to get it.

Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson pointed out that the level of service “E” (LOS-E) which the Plan produces in North Bethesda, was “the appropriate level for an urban area.” He pointed out that the problems were outside White Flint.

Diane Schwartz-Jones, from the County Executive’s office, noted that delaying the Plan meant killing it. The development districts they have been considering are predicated on this Plan, the full Plan, not just Phase One. The cost of improvements of Phase One are $88.9 million, with 12 million sq. of commercial space to help pay for the costs. (that is more than the Committee staff recommendation would permit.)

Councilmember Roger Berliner said that the “failure” is less than one minute, and the problem is that the larger policy area gets stressed by that one minute in 2030. Dan Hardy: that’s correct. Berliner: have you done an analysis within WF itself which shows that it fails. Hardy: tough to separate WF from the larger area. We have specific intersections that we have tested. We have greater latitude in WF. Any development in or outside of No Bethesda would be subject to traffic conditions.

Orlin: the reason for looking at balance in WF is that we’ve historically done it this way. Historically the local intersections work when we look at them. The problem occurs just outside the Metro Station Policy Areas (the higher density areas around Metro stations). That’s what happens here: Montrose and Rockville Pike below WF.

Elrich: the capacity measures around the country are not reliable. It’s a legitimate standard. Not that cars speed down Rockville Pike, but that they are unimpeded. 12 miles per hour is the standard. No one is talking about preserving the Pike as a speedway. The question is how far do you let things go. And it’s 130 seconds, and that delay may well cascade up and down the Pike. I’m unwilling to use some of the other modeling tests to see how that performs. I’d like to see the raw numbers. I’d be interested in any other thing we can do differently. I don’t view this as an insoluble problem. I’ve talked to people on both sides of the issue and I haven’t found anyone who says leave Rockville Pike the way it is. I don’t think we’ve worked hard enough to see the answers. If we have to go beyond the limits of the WF Plan to see those solutions, then I think we should do that.  If anything we’ve done calls for stepping back, this problem causes us to do that. What can we do to make this work? Rather than lowering the standard, we don’t have to fix anything; that’s the problem with lowering the standard. Things will become a royal mess because we’ve changed the balance. I think we ought to think about how these things work together. Take a little time to understand where the problems are. I would lke to feel we’re actually solving the problem, not defining the problem away. What’s to stop us from defining the problem away every time we have a problem? I have confidence we can actually solve this.

Berliner: schools moratorium created a context where we got a win-win. What Elrich is saying is analogous. Best outcome would be to use the existing standard to drive other policy objectives. What do we need for our community as a whole to be a smart growth community and WF itself may not be enough. We could adopt policy guidance that could get us where we want to go. That’s what I hope to do over the next several weeks. Maybe we can get to “balance.” Notion that we are making a fundamental decision based on a standard that is about to change is not the most reasonable analysis. But this can be an opportunity, not a challenge.

Floreen: I love the WF Plan. Because the community defined what it wanted and said the community character is what matters most. I have come to say that’s how you should find out what matters. Is the City of Rockville in balance? It doesn’t use this test and it’s a neighbor of WF. Why let 9 Council members define this? Special procedures in place to protect community needs. I will lie down in the middle of Rockville Pike if you make the intersection at Strathmore any bigger. People can’t walk across Strathmore because of the speeds drivers think they’re entitled to. We’re using the wrong standards. You’ve got to get this development district in process to proceed. Partners in creating the community. We’re letting the wrong standards drive us. I can’t explain to difference the difference between 30 seconds and 40. People who live within WF want to see some real improvements. The people nearby are ok with that, they just don’t want it to affect them too much. I find this frustrating.

Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg: I spent the better part of the weekend listening to my neighbors express their frustration about the situation. I’ve had a lot of conversation with people who live in the area, and people are in agreement with the vision. There are details still to be worked out. We’ve been waiting for this for a while. We’ve got to approve the big picture and not just part of it.

Elrich: I differ on this issue of the test causing a problem. All the test shows you is the relative mobility. Historically always said all we can do is add a lane; that’s not requirement of the test. Other way to do it is to change modal splits; we didn’t take that option. Fairfax County new growth policy says you can’t meet your requirement by adding lanes, you have to get people onto transit. We can make a different choice. Let’s drive this toward a transit solution. It’s gotta be bigger than WF. Embrace the broader policy that tries to set these rules everywhere. It’s logical for these developments in Bethesda to give way to the developments in WF. Give Park & Planning some time to come back with more options.

Berliner: I don’t support either proposal from staff. I don’t support the road improvements because that’s the old paradigm we’re desperately trying to get away from. If we do anything to the Pike, it should be the boulevard and BRT and the new things. How close can we get to the standard, as imperfect as it is? Until we’ve tried to get as close as we can to the standard, we’re not in a position to do that.

Knapp: 3 options: change land use, change mobility, or change policy. Timing realities. Things have to be done by. Last time for us to take action in Committee on WF is Feb. 1. Critical piece is the money, which we’ll take up on Jan 26. Infrastructure is necessary under any scenario. Financing piece for infrastructure may be more significant than what the actual test is. We know we don’t want to get caught up on that. We can take some time, but effectively have a week, and look at alternatives and have a financing discussion without tying ourselves up. We could get some perspective from the development community. There’s a window.

Hanson: you all agree on what you want to do, you just want to argue it out. Importance of focussing on vision, what you’re trying to accomplish. Vision is to create a great place, and to do that, there’s some things that will help. Staging discussion is overlooked in this balance discussion. We had extensive discussion in the Planning Board about each stage to show what needs to be there to make that stage function. We have a recommendation of a funding mechanism that makes it possible to get those things there in time for the next stage to take place. We set up some performance standards to trigger each stage. So the staging recommendations ensure that the facilities to support that stage will be available to progress to the next stage. This is unique in sector plans in the County, to figure out how to make this happen. For a long time,, you’ve used the current growth standards to bring a plan into balance, but important factor is that the growth policy standard is for individual subdivisions, a failsafe, which says that if the stuff needed for each subdivision isn’t there, the developer has to wait until it is. That’s a different use of the standard than balancing transportation in a master plan. In a master plan, you’re making a general assumption about how things are going to work many years out. You can add in assumptions, that over the next 30 years we’ll have changes, all these things are to be taken into account. But if the things that are necessary for each stage, then the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, at that time, will be in place to insure that growth doesn’t get ahead of facilities. So don’t use the test for the wrong thing.

Knapp: Bring back at the Feb. 1 meeting. And at the jan 26 meeting. 260 e-mails this morning. But we have a few days to work on this.

Floreen: