Montgomery Council approves 30-year plan for denser development

By Katherine Shaver Washington Post
Published October 25, 2022 at 1:10 p.m. EDT

The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a 30-year growth plan Tuesday that calls for denser development, including a recommendation to allow duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.

The 126-page plan, known as Thrive 2050, includes broad policy goals and doesn’t change zoning. However, council members have said zoning changes will be necessary to enact the plan’s vision of making the Maryland suburb of 1.1 million residents more economically vital and environmentally resilient while less segregated by race and income. In addition to potential zoning changes, the policies will be enacted through master plans tailored to specific geographic areas.

Planners and council members have said Thrive, including its call for a greatermix of housing types throughout the county, will help the mostly built-out suburb absorb new residents by focusing compact development around transit lines, major roads and activity centers. The vote ends a contentious three-year period for the state’s most-populous county as the proposal divided residents, with both sides arguing quality of life was at stake.

Suburb’s 30-year growth plan fuels debate over denser development

Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) called Thrive a “challenging and complex” plan that had grown out of a “record number of public engagement opportunities” since mid-2019. Thrive “was never going to be perfect,” Albornoz said before the vote, adding that the county needed to rewrite its 1964 general plan, which had been updated and refined but not comprehensively rewritten.

“The quality of life that all of us have grown accustomed to … all happened by design through communities working together and previous general plans,” Albornoz said.

Opponents in the audience waved signs saying “Corruption!” and “Don’t displace us!” Some shouted “No!,” “Shame on you!” and “You ignored us!” when council members praised the plan, at one point prompting Albornoz to cut off the chamber’s microphones.

Thrive has drawn vocal opposition from some residents who say allowing duplexes, small apartment buildings and other denser housing types in single-family neighborhoods would lead to more traffic congestion, tree loss, crowded schools and overtaxed police and fire protection. Others, including Montgomery Executive Marc Elrich (D), have said it won’t ensure that developers, who will beallowed to build more homes on less land, will provide enough affordable housing for lower-income residents.

Proposal to relax single-family zoning in the suburbs is dividing neighborhoods

Council member Sidney Katz (D-District 3) said he initially disagreed with some elements of the plan and was concerned that opponents felt ignored. However, he said while Thrive remained “far from perfect,” he believed the council and its staff had resolved many of its problems.

“In many ways, this document is the beginning, not the end,” Katz said. “The goals are what we need, and we must pledge that on an individual basis for each area and each neighborhood, that we will work together … to make certain that each neighborhood’s quality of life is enhanced and all are listened to.”

Supporters praised the passage of a plan aimed at making the auto-centric suburb more walkable, transit-oriented and affordable by encouraging more housing.

“The unanimous approval by the Montgomery County Council says it all,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocated for Thrive. “This is a sustainable, inclusive and competitive vision for the county.”

Opponents said higher densities will give property owners a financial incentive to displace renters by tearing down rental single-family homes and replacing them with larger and more lucrative rental buildings. Others said public comment had been rushed during the pandemic, when many residents weren’t paying close attention to land-use issues.

“I think there are a lot of good ideas in Thrive, but it’s not ready,” said Jamison Adcock, an Aspen Hill resident. “It has flaws and problems, and the council pushed it through anyway.”

Piling allegations, plummeting morale drove planning board upheaval

Elrich said he was disappointed in the plan’s passage, saying it gives short shrift to racial equity issues and the “variety of solutions” — beyond zoning changes — needed to provide more affordable housing.

Heand some other Thrive opponents had called on the council to delay voting until a new, permanent planning board could reconsider it. All five members of the board, which sent a draft of Thrive to the council in April 2021, resigned Oct. 12 amid investigations into alleged ethics violations and misbehavior.

The council interviewed 11 finalists Tuesday among the 128 residents who applied for positions on an interim planning board. They included a former council member, several former planning board members, lawyers, architects and professional planners. All said the interim board needs to restore public confidence in the county’s planning leadership, support employees after several tumultuous weeks, and make residents feel heard and respected.

Montgomery council aks planning board to “encourage transparency”

Albornoz has said the council plans to appoint the interim members Thursday. The new council elected next month will select the permanent board after taking office in December.

Council members have said they are seeking board members with land-use expertise and who reflect the county’s racial and ethnic diversity. The board approves development proposals, overseeing955 planning and parks employees and the departments’ combined $150 million annual operating budgets.