The Montgomery County Council is in the home stretch of deliberations on Thrive Montgomery 2050 before a scheduled Oct. 25 vote — and green-lighted Tuesday more council and planning staff amendments for the proposed general master plan.
Thrive Montgomery 2050 is the county’s proposed update to its general master plan, focusing on topics including housing, transportation and parks. It is the first new plan since the Wedges and Corridors plan — which focused on Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — was adopted in the 1960s. That plan last underwent a major update in 1993.
Broadly speaking, supporters of the plan say Thrive will help create more affordable communities and better living environments countywide through its focus on such areas as increasing housing and amenities and providing a better park system. Critics of the plan say it will lead to the displacement of middle- to low-income communities, and that it could lead to greater environmental impacts because of increased development.
Chapters related to racial equity and social justice, economic development, and the environment were added after the County Council hired a consultant to review and conduct more outreach on Thrive Montgomery 2050.
On Tuesday, council members reviewed and approved several amendments to the plan’s introduction, more than six chapters and its conclusion. In one specific debate, the council split 5-4 on whether to completely eliminate the designation of River Road, located in the southwestern part of the county, as a growth corridor, meaning that planning and county officials recognize that it is an area for some form of potential future development and growth.
The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee had reached a compromise to include River Road between Washington, D.C., and the Beltway as part of a growth corridor. Previously, the designated section of River Road had extended to Potomac Village, north of the Beltway.
Council Members Craig Rice, Andrew Friedson, Gabe Albornoz and Sidney Katz voted to remove the entire road as a growth corridor. However, Council Members Nancy Navarro, Evan Glass, Tom Hucker Hans Riemer, and Will Jawando voted against the idea, meaning the plan will identify River Road as a growth corridor between Washington, D.C., and the Beltway.
Friedson had argued that because River Road isn’t a transit-oriented corridor, it shouldn’t be included. In an interview, Rice agreed with that premise, arguing there needs to be infrastructure, particularly in transit and roads, to accommodate any future residential growth in the corridor.
“Unless you’re going to be taking homes or taking commercial space to account for road expansion, it really doesn’t set itself up as a growth area,” Rice said.
Planning staff and council members who opposed that position said that growth corridors should be included in every part of the county, in order to allow for the possibility of transit and future development.
Gwen Wright, the county’s planning director, said River Road was included as a growth corridor because of its geographic location, connecting the District to the Beltway and also the American Legion Bridge leading into Northern Virginia. There has also already been some growth in the Bethesda area of the road including near Westbard Avenue, she added.
The final weeks
Council members face a busy schedule between now and Oct. 25 when they plan to vote on the entire Thrive plan.
According to state law, the council must vote on any proposed general master plan before November during an election year, and County Council President Gabe Albornoz has said the current council should vote on the county’s proposal.
Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson said in an interview that he feels “pretty good” about the changes made by the council and its Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee.
He believes that Thrive is important not only because of its vision for housing and traditional development, but also how it establishes “social connections” for residents — including by creating better parks, more bikeable and walkable communities, and establishing spaces where it’s easier for people to interact.
It’s also important for critics to understand that more specific decisions about future neighborhoods or parts of the county will be part of future small-area master plans or zoning decisions, he said.
“I think there’s a lot of discussions about what this plan does to their neighborhoods,” Anderson said of some critics’ views. “[But] a comprehensive plan is more of a framework, than prescribing certain things for certain parts of the county.”
Council Member Hans Riemer, chair of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee, said the plan recognizes there will be future growth, and that there must be some change in how planners and county officials broadly view how to deal with an increasing population.
The River Road debate is symbolic of the larger vision of Thrive, Riemer said.
“Are we really going to say that change is not encouraged in such a large part of the county?” Riemer said about both opponents of the River Plan growth corridor designation, and the overall plan. “And I think that’s fundamentally what the advocates for that are seeking, [they] are saying things are going to stay the same. And that’s not appropriate.”
Rice, who leaves office in December, said he’s supportive of Thrive, but that the changes to the plan related racial equity and social justice are particularly important. The plan must recognize that a large number of residents — including those of color — might not be able to take public transportation and must drive to work and other events, based on overall transit access and residents’ daily demands.
“It’s about ensuring that we’re not impeding on their ability to be successful, to be able to compete, to be able to be connected … ensuring that this document allows and supports that is one of my most important goals moving forward,” Rice said.
The council is scheduled to continue its discussion of the Thrive plan at its next meeting on Oct. 11.