The End of the Beginning?

The End of the Beginning?

Royce Hanson, 78, was honored yesterday for his long service as Chairman of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Hanson served twice as Chairman, during two pivotal eras, first, 1972-81, creating the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve (which preserved green land in a wealthy and dense county) and then, since 2006, as the down county shifted from a purely suburban character to a more urban setting. More info. His term ended last week, and the tribute/farewell was for his “third retirement.”

He led the Planning Board in its development of the White Flint Sector Plan, the first Montgomery County master plan to fully embrace the concept of New Urbanism. He presented the Plan to the first White Flint Town Hall meeting, sponsored by Friends of White Flint, in September 2009.

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson at 2009 White Flint Town Hall

 Most of the MoCo power elite turned out for the tribute speeches in the mid-afternoon heat yesterday, including Congressman Chris Van Hollen, County Executive Ike Leggett, Council President Nancy Floreen and other councilmembers:

Cong. Chris Van Hollen and FoWF Board Secretary Ken Hurdle

 Cong. Van Hollen and FoWF Board Secretary Ken Hurdle (left) 

Hanson, Councilmembers Berliner, Trachtenberg, Floreen, Knapp and Leventhal, and Executive Leggett

(Royce Hanson, Councilmembers Berliner, Trachtenberg, Floreen, Knapp and Leventhal, and County Executive Leggett)

Royce Hanson made people think, and he liked to talk to people who had thought. He could summarize complicated concepts simply and clearly, but his folksy style hid the fact that he was proposing radical changes. He was a comforting authority figure, whose well-founded self-confidence easily slid onto his listeners. He combined that intellectual and forward-thinking spirit with a zest for organization which taxed those who could barely keep up with him.  He often clashed with Councilmembers, whom he thought of as too willing to bend to every passing comment and complaint. (The Washington Post had an article yesterday on this conflict.) He especially resented the fact that the Council staff often tried to function as a super-planning agency; in more than one hearing where the Council staff attempted to characterize the purpose of various proposals, he would get up and leave the room until his unhappiness subsided.  

Hanson represents an interesting set of innovative concepts in planning, shifting the County from blind growth to protection of green space, from suburban sprawl to planned density in “urban” areas, from automobile-centered transportation planning to transit-oriented communities, and from simple zoning for each area to complex, incentive-based zoning proposals designed to generate more public amenities at lower cost.

Though all of the speeches rightfully honored Hanson for his many contributions to the development of Montgomery County over forty years, there were hidden tensions and confusion. Council President Nancy Floreen promised him yesterday that “We will do better.” Councilmember Marc Elrich, who didn’t attend yesterday’s event, told the Post that Hanson “often ignored other views” about not “wrecking the place.”

Now, with the County leadership consumed by financial problems brought on by the recession, a lingering question remains: As Hanson was being feted for bringing Montgomery County planning into the twenty-first century, would the cash-strapped County slip back?

Only time will tell.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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