Members of Nspiregreen and Public Engagement Associates, and other county officials address the County Council during a meeting on Sept. 13. Jordan Exantus, managing associate of Nspiregreen, is second from left. Credit: Steve Bohnel

County Executive Marc Elrch continued his opposition to a proposed update to the county’s general master plan in a memo this week to the County Council. But Council President Gabe Albornoz said the council still plans to vote on Thrive Montgomery 2050 by the end of October.

In his memo, Elrich referenced the work of Nspiregreen and Public Engagement Associates, the consultants that the council hired to evaulate how Thrive Montgomery 2050’s addresses racial equity and social justice, along with adding a chapter to the plan on racial equity and social justice.

Thrive Montgomery 2050 is the proposed update to the county’s general master plan It 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.

The County Council has been reviewing Thrive since the county’s Planning Board approved it in April 2021. There were more than half a dozen sessions by the county’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee, and multiple sessions before the full council. 

The council decided to hire a consultant to review and assess the plan’s impact on racial equity and social justice, after it underwent a racial equity and social justice review.

“The many recommendations in the [consultant] Report addressing racial equity and social

justice (RESJ) should be given full consideration,” Elrich wrote in his memo. “Disapproving Thrive 2050 as now drafted would also allow sufficient time for additional public hearings and departmental review.”

In an interview Tuesday, Albornoz said he wasn’t surprised by the memo, noting that Elrich has opposed the approval of Thrive Montgomery 2050 for many months. 

Albornoz acknowledged once again that the proposed plan isn’t supported by everyone. But he added that the current council should vote on it before the Nov. 8 general election.

“I do think it’s important for this council to vote on it … starting from scratch would not be advisable. We are never going to come to a perfect document, but sensible people can agree that there is more agreement than disagreement on what’s in the document,” Albornoz said.

Consultant details engagement process with minority, lower-income communities 

The report and recommended chapter addition by Nspiregreen and Public Engagement Associates notes that county planning officials and the council could have done a better job of engaging more residents of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds earlier in the process.

The consultants led multiple focus groups attended by a total of about 90 people and delivered an online survey to more than 1,800 people, aiming to engage communities of color and lower-income residents. They also held an online community forum in mid-August, that more than 160 people attended.

“Generally, we found a lukewarm reaction to Thrive’s policies amongst our target demographic,” the consultants wrote in the executive summary of their report. “While we received some positive feedback, many people expressed frustration due to a perceived lack of context-sensitivity in approach that did not go far enough to consider and prioritize the needs of working class communities.”

Jordan Exantus, managing associate of Nspiregreen, said that one of the challenges of soliciting feedback during the process was that some community members didn’t trust the consultants, even though they weren’t government officials. Residents may have also gotten “planning fatigue” earlier in the process, finding Thrive difficult to understand, and were more interested on how it would be implemented if approved, he added.

Several council members praised the consultants’ work and Albornoz said that a second meeting would be scheduled to further review the proposed chapter and findings.

Council Member Will Jawando, who had previously said that more input about the proposed plan was needed from minorities and low-income residents, said that he and other council members had gathered similar concerns from residents as those collected by Nspiregreen and Public Engagement Associates.

“We’ve had versions and parts of this, but I feel the process has not been institutionalized,” Jawando said of Nspiregreen and Public Engagement Associates’ work. 

Still, Elrich said that his office and the public deserve an opportunity to evaluate the consultants’ recommended changes, specifically those about preventing displacement in areas of naturally occurring affordable housing, and providing more parks in communities of minorities and more low-income housing.

“Rather than rushing to meet the statutory deadline for passage of land use plans by October 31 in an election year, the Council should welcome the opportunity to accept the Report’s findings that there is a need for more outreach to and engagement of [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] and low-income residents and acknowledge the breadth of changes recommended,” Elrich said.

Albornoz, however, said that while the consultants’ work was valuable — not just for Thrive, but for engagement of communities across several issues — a final vote would likely be coming by the end of October.

“This sets the stage, this sets the general framework of land use and future planning decisions,” Albornoz said. The actual legislative policy process and finer decisions will be made after this.”