Elrich asks Planning Board to limit meetings to ‘noncontroversial’ issues

Elrich asks Planning Board to limit meetings to ‘noncontroversial’ issues

Considers virtual meetings inadequate for public feedback during pandemic

| Published:

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, left, and Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson, right.

File photos

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has asked the local Planning Board to stop holding virtual public hearings for development projects and limit its meetings to “noncontroversial” issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doing so would effectively halt the development review process, because the Planning Board cannot approve projects without public feedback.

Since the COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic shut down many county functions and prompted bans on gatherings, many governing bodies, including the Montgomery County Planning Board, have taken their meetings online.

Unlike other boards, the Planning Board has continued to have full day-long meeting agendas, entertaining lengthy project presentations and voting on whether to approve those projects.

In recent weeks, the Planning Board has held lengthy discussions about the subdivision staging policy, which sets the framework for when a development moratorium is triggered. It has also discussed its long-term, countywide master plan, Thrive Montgomery 2050, that will guide development decisions for several decades.

In a letter to the County Council last week, Elrich requested that the Planning Board limit its business to “those agenda items that are noncontroversial, necessary for the administrative functioning of the agency, and unrelated to major policy decisions.”

He wrote that virtual public hearings present challenges for many people and are often hampered by technical difficulties, thus limiting who is able or willing to participate.

“The result is little, if any, participation by a distracted public,” Elrich wrote.

Elrich’s letter is addressed to Montgomery County Council President Sidney Katz. In it, Elrich praises council members for postponing public hearings on non-budget issues until the pandemic has subsided. The county executive asks the council to call on the Planning Board to follow its lead and postpone non-essential hearings.

The County Council cannot require the Planning Board to halt public hearings on non-essential matters because it does not have authority over planning matters, but it can request the action.

In a statement to Bethesda Beat, Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson wrote that continuing planning work is essential to ensuring the community can rebound from the economic fallout of the pandemic. He said some of the plans the board approves ultimately create new jobs across the county.

“We want to move these efforts forward, not stop them in their tracks, in order to support the difficult work of recovery from the job losses that have already been inflicted by the pandemic and threaten to plunge the economy into a deep recession. … Stopping work on these important initiatives at this time will leave us unprepared for bouncing back from the current crisis — the sooner we get to work on these issues the better.”

Anderson added that planning officials have received “a tremendous amount of positive feedback” from community members about virtual testimony options.

The wide range of options — email, phone calls, social media posts, audio and video submissions — provides many opportunities for people to weigh in on development and policy matters, Anderson wrote.

“On the whole, we think it is fair to say that we provide a wide variety of options for public input that may not be exactly the same as the typical avenues of communication but in some respects are even better than what was available before COVID-19,” Anderson wrote.

The Planning Board has also moved its pre-submittal development meetings online. During those meetings, developers give an initial project presentation to the public before formally submitting their plans to the county to start the review process. The meetings are mandatory and provide the public an opportunity to provide early feedback.

In March, the Planning Department announced that developers will be required to hold those meetings virtually for the duration of the pandemic.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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