2021 | Government

UPDATED: Council members skeptical of projected costs of Thrive Montgomery 2050 long-range plan

One rough estimate is at least $220M annually in extra capital costs for nearly 30 years

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Montgomery County Council members and other county officials met in a Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee meeting Monday to discuss the fiscal impact statement of Thrive Montgomery 2050. Thrive Montgomery is a proposed update to the county’s Wedges and Corridors Plan, which dates to the 1960s and was last updated in 1993.

Image from Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee meeting

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 28, 2021, to add comments from a statement by Montgomery County planning officials.

Montgomery County’s proposed general master plan update could cost roughly $220 million a year for capital projects, County Council members heard Monday. But that rough estimate is too speculative to treat as concrete, council members said.

The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) committee was briefed Monday on the potential fiscal impact statement of Thrive Montgomery 2050, a new master plan for the county.

Thrive Montgomery 2050 is a proposed update to the county’s Wedges and Corridors Plan, which dates to the 1960s and was last updated in 1993.

The county’s proposed master plan suggests how zoning and land use decisions could be made for the next 29 years. It would serve as an overall guide for smaller area master plans and county zoning decisions, where more exact decisions will occur in the coming years. 

Supporters of the plan state that its outlook on zoning and position on creating more transit and housing of all types is vital to support a growing population. Opponents say the plan does not focus enough on addressing current infrastructure needs and that well-established neighborhoods, particularly with single-family housing, would suffer. 

The county’s Office of Management and Budget determined in a draft fiscal impact statement that, at the lowest cost scenarios, Thrive Montgomery 2050 would increase the county’s capital costs by about $6.4 billion over roughly 29 years, or about $220 million annually. 

The analysis and corresponding memo, however, noted that because Thrive Montgomery 2050 is a broad, conceptual plan, cost estimates are based on many assumptions.

In a statement on Tuesday morning, Montgomery County Planning Director Gwen Wright said the draft fiscal impact statement does not give a meaningful comparison of the costs of Thrive Montgomery 2050 with the county’s cost of growth without it. The analysis does not account for the potential benefit of an increased tax base, Wright said in the statement.

In the same statement, Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson said: “We understand that OMB wanted to avoid speculating about numbers that are hard to pin down with certainty, but they made several assumptions about how much Thrive will cost without considering how much revenue it will generate. … It is impossible to assess the net financial impact of a plan like this by estimating costs without also estimating benefits.”

The analysis in the fiscal impact statement identified two “activity centers” (mixed-use areas) — a small one in Aspen Hill and a larger one in Silver Spring — and predicted how much infrastructure improvements would cost, ranging from increasing transit to police to fire and rescue services.

Council Member Hans Riemer, the chair of the PHED committee, said on Monday that he appreciated the work of the Office of Management and Budget, but because Thrive Montgomery 2050 is so broad, any figures within the analysis would be hard to confirm. 

County planners and other officials don’t know how development will occur between now and 2050, and what infrastructure decisions will be made by then, Riemer added. 

Mary Beck, the county’s capital budget planner, said the county needed to do a fiscal analysis because of county and state law. Even uncertain cost estimates give county officials and residents “a more realistic understanding” of the timeline for capital projects like transit or increasing police and fire and rescue service, she said.

The fiscal analysis for Thrive Montgomery 2050 is not perfect, Beck said.

“Because the plan was very general, there [were] significant costs and savings that we just could not estimate,” Beck said. “We would have had to make too many speculative assumptions to do that, and we didn’t want to go down that road.”

The analysis made recommendations that cut money from proposed capital projects.

In one instance, the Office of Management and Budget suggested cutting $123.6 million in capital costs and $15.9 million in county annual operating costs from Thrive Montgomery 2050 because officials interpreted that “improve access” did not actually mean increasing bus service, but rather public awareness of the agricultural reserve and its businesses. 

Some, including Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice, disagreed with that policy decision, and thought increased bus access is something that county officials should consider paying for.

Rice represents District 2, which includes a lot of the agricultural reserve upcounty. He said the county must improve and add more bus service to vineyards, breweries, farms and other venues in the agricultural reserve.

He mentioned one business near his home, Windridge Vineyards, that is not close to any bus line.

“Everyone who’s got their beautiful cars and got their expensive bicycles can come up to Windridge Vineyards and the agricultural reserve and enjoy all there is to offer,” Rice. “But if you’re poor, if you don’t have those kinds of things, sorry. Those aren’t there for you. And that’s a problem. And we need to fix that, and we need to fix it quickly, and it’s going to cost us money.”

Anderson did not disagree that more bus access to the agricultural reserve is needed. But more activities and businesses that residents can attend and visit need to be available before bus service is increased, he said. 

Wright added that if there are enough businesses in certain parts of the agricultural reserve, the market will be created for more bus service. 

But Rice said there are already a lot of businesses in the area that merit bus service. Many residents and visitors come to the agricultural reserve to patronize those businesses and share their experiences on social media, he added. 

“Let’s not pretend as though we’re not already incredibly successful, with so many things that are out there,” Rice said.

The committee and entire county will continue deliberating over the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan over the next several weeks. Council members said previously they would like to vote on the overall plan by year’s end.

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