2020 | Development

Focus is on diversifying housing types, racial equity in county’s next general plan

County working on new draft of document that sets development, zoning priorities

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As planners build out the county’s long-term development framework, last drafted in 1964, new themes are emerging. Among them: racial equity and the need for diversified housing types.

About two years ago, the Montgomery County Planning Department began rewriting its “general plan,” a document that sets the tone for development and zoning throughout the county.

The new plan, branded as Thrive Montgomery 2050, is expected to stand for the next three decades and lay the groundwork for future master plans. Master plans are specific to certain areas of the county and are more specific than the county’s general plan.

“The way I always think about (the general plan) is that it’s a plan for other plans — it’s a framework for plans,” said Casey Anderson, chair of the county’s Planning Board. “The most obvious thing it does is it really establishes an organizing system for land use and transportation for the next generation or two. … It’s also a document that identifies our strengths and weaknesses and where we need to do some work as a community.”

Last week, more than 85 people testified about the new draft of the general plan, talking about the nine themes of the draft plan:

• Create Complete Communities through urbanism and a mix of uses
• Achieve racial equity and social justice
• Provide attainable housing for all income levels
• Rethink single-family neighborhoods near transit
• Plan for people instead of cars
• Eradicate greenhouse gas emissions
• Prioritize great design and the importance of place
• Make corridors the place for new growth
• Develop regional solutions and strategies.

Each theme includes principles on various topics. For example, under “Achieve Racial Equity,” some of the ideas include working to ensure marginalized communities have a voice in development decision-making processes and that there is more affordable housing in “amenity-rich areas.”

Other ideas in the identified categories include:

• prioritize walking and bicycling as the highest priority mode of transportation
• implement innovative school design on more compact properties
• make parks and open spaces central elements of communities
• expand access to parks and trails
• make government processes transparent and easy to understand
• support countywide economic development initiatives
• preserve land for production jobs
• facilitate the mass adoption of zero-emission vehicles
• concentrate new development along public transit corridors.

The hundreds of ideas listed in the document were compiled during multiple community outreach events over the past two years.

While the general plan doesn’t set policies or laws, it has historically helped guide lawmakers’ decisions. For example, the current plan emphasized the need to preserve land for agriculture, prompting local lawmakers to adopt the law that created the agricultural reserve.

“That’s an example of how it may not make changes that have a direct, immediate effect, but it still has a profound effect on the real world over time,” Anderson said.

Possibly the most important element of the general plan’s rewrite this year is the focus on more affordable housing.

Anderson said that about one-third of the county is zoned for single-family houses that continue to get larger. That’s as the county’s demographics shift more toward single people who live alone and don’t necessarily need large homes, he said.

“There’s serious tension in the way land use is regulated and the way that people are actually living,” he said. “This plan won’t solve it by itself, but it lays out the issues surrounding housing and says, ‘This is something we need to figure out.’ ”

The Planning Board will continue to review and refine the draft plan before submitting it to the County Council in April for review. Ten Planning Board work sessions are scheduled between Jan. 7 and Feb. 25. Public comments will be accepted until Dec. 10.

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