A Confidence-Booster for Montgomery County

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

Barnaby Zall

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