This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. June 21, 2022, to correct the organization that Hans Riemer referenced during Tuesday’s meeting.

The Montgomery County Council said Tuesday it expects to vote on Thrive Montgomery 2050, the county’s proposed update to its general master plan, by the end of October.

The council determined the vote timing after hearing from a consultant, Nspiregreen, that it recently hired to improve engagement within local communities on Thrive, particularly when it comes to racial equity and social justice. The council was tasked with finding a consultant after an Office of Legislative Oversight report found that the county’s planning staff and other officials did not do enough when formulating the plan to engage communities of color and low-income residents.

Thrive Montgomery 2050 focuses on topics such as where growth should occur in the county, what type of housing is needed, what new communities should look like, how to grow arts and culture countywide, transportation networks, and the future of county parks. 

Supporters of the plan say it is needed to provide more affordable housing and will better shape how the county will grow along major corridors. Opponents say it will lead to further displacement of low-income residents and communities of color, and that the plan doesn’t consider the massive infrastructure investments needed to implement its vision.

The plan has also caused debate on the local campaign trail. County Executive Marc Elrich, who is running for re-election, has been critical of the plan, saying it won’t create the level of affordable housing that its supporters claim. County Council Member Hans Riemer, one of Elrich’s challengers, has said the county executive has made misleading statements on Thrive, including on its housing goals.

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According to a council staff report, Nspiregreen — which is also working with Public Engagement Associates, a local consulting firm that aims to increase public engagement — should submit a report and draft chapter for racial justice and social equity to the County Council by early September. The lead consultant, Nspiregreen is working with Public Engagement Associates because the firm has local ties.

Pamela Dunn, a senior legislative analyst for the council, said that timeline would allow the council to hold up to six worksessions on the proposed plan before the end of October, which is when the council wants to vote on Thrive.

Dunn told Bethesda Beat after Tuesday’s worksession that the council is paying Nspiregreen just under $100,000, which is similar to the costs of other solicitation processes that county officials have undertaken.

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County Council Member Andrew Friedson said Tuesday that he wants council staff to come up with a more specific timeline for Nspiregreen to deliver its findings to the council. He said he’s worried that if the consultant takes too long, the council might not be able to meet the deadline of voting by late October.

According to council staff reports and prior meetings, the council will add a chapter to the plan related to racial equity and social justice. On Tuesday, members also agreed to add separate chapters involving economic development and the environment, although those areas will not be in the direct scope of Nspiregreen’s work.

Council Member Hans Riemer, who chairs the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee, said Tuesday that much of the content already in Thrive can be repurposed for the chapter on racial equity and social justice, and can help guide Nspiregreen’s work. He added the same can be done for the environment and economic development chapters.

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Riemer also encouraged Nspiregreen officials to reach out to organizations like Action in Montgomery, a “a broad-based community power organization rooted in Montgomery County’s neighborhoods and congregations,” according to their website. That group has held several meetings, some with 1,000 people in attendance, in churches and other facilities countywide, Riemer said.

“They’re not just on Twitter and Instagram, they’re in the communities and in people’s living rooms,” Riemer said of the organization’s outreach.

Theo Brown, a principal with Public Engagement Associates, said he has lived in the Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring for over 30 years — so he knows the local issues and organizations like Action in Montgomery, the Montgomery County Racial Equity Network, and others.

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Jordan Exantus, managing associate with Nspiregreen, will serve as the project manager for the consultant’s outreach with communities. He told council members that it will be important to speak with community members in clear terms — for example, not everyone may know what transit-oriented developments means, but everyone can speak about their difficult commute to work, the lack of nearby and convenient childcare and other issues.

Exantus said in an interview that Thrive discusses racial equity and social issues, but only at a “surface-level” and the proposed plan needs to be more specific in how those issues connect to the environment, housing and other issues. 

“The language isn’t as strong as I would like to see, to address the issues that exist,” Exantus said. “It makes broad claims about how [housing] affordability will do all these things, and then, engendering a sense of place and interaction is all of a sudden going to create harmonious integration and improve social capital. But I think when you talk about race and poverty in particular, the issues are very nuanced and people have very diverse views on how to address those things.”

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Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com