Planning Board Candidates Urge Better Transportation and Housing, Community Input
Council Council interviewing seven candidates from among two dozen applicants
Five Montgomery Countians aspiring to be on the county Planning Board interviewed before the County Council Thursday and most agreeing that more public transit and affordable housing options are needed.
They also said the community needs a greater role in the Planning Board’s activities.
The board advises the County Council on land use, crafts master plans and reviews park plans among other responsibilities.
The County Council chose seven candidates from 24 who originally applied for a vacant seat on the five-member board. One of the seven, Brandy Brooks, has applied both for the vacancy and the chair position. Current chairman Casey Anderson is running for another term and the term of member Norman Dreyfuss is expiring.
Council President Nancy Navarro said Thursday the council will discuss the candidates in closed session, but not take a formal vote until its June 25 meeting.
Brooks, a progressive activist from Wheaton who has a background in land use planning, said the board must consider racial and socioeconomic equity when making decisions that impact land use, which for her means holding more community meetings with minorities.
“It’s not going to be a technical fix. It needs to be getting to the root cause of how we got to these issues…. We have to be talking to folks of color in our communities, low-income individuals,” she said.
Brooks said the Veirs Mill Corridor master plan effectively included input from the residents who live in the affected areas, because the county held community meetings.
Asked what her definition of “revitalization” was, Brooks said it means “supporting the life that is already in a place to survive better, not replacing a place with another place.”
A majority of council members have informally endorsed Anderson for another term, while County Executive Marc Elrich has said he doesn’t approve of Anderson because he believes the chairman’s leadership has not helped minority communities. Elrich, however, has said he will respect the decision of the council.
Elrich, according to media reports, attracted controversy earlier this week when he said he “didn’t believe in the missing middle” at a housing conference in the District of Columbia, referring to multi-family housing such as duplexes and fourplexes.
One of the candidates, former Gaithersburg planning director Jennifer Russel, said she disagreed with the comments and that “serious changes are needed” to the county’s zoning ordinances.
“Everyone can’t live in Bethesda and the SSP will have to look at other areas,” she said, referring to the county’s subdivision staging policy, which set thresholds for establishing a development moratorium.
Russel added that she hopes the Planning Board can work together with the boards of other jurisdictions in the region as part of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, particularly on issues such as regional transportation. Last year’s agreement between Maryland, Virginia and the District to secure dedicated funding for Metro, she said, is an example to be followed.
Julian Haffner, a Gaithersburg attorney who interviewed Tuesday, said he believes a number of changes to the county’s approach to retail development are needed, particularly in a way that incorporates affordable housing.
“There is a need for millennials to congregate in spaces other than malls,” he said.
William Kirwan, a Bethesda architect and former member of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission, said the county has “created a bit of a log jam” in constructing housing that is either at the higher end or the lower end. There is “unrealized potential” for more middle-income housing in Montgomery Village and Germantown, he said, in response to a question about how he planned to take into account the concerns of upcounty residents.
Kirwan added that the Planning Board must move forward on the proposed 15-mile Corridor Cities Transitway bus line between Shady Grove and Clarksburg.
“The development that happens around those stations is critical,” he said.
Partap Verma, a grassroots activist from Forest Glen and attorney in the Department of Homeland Security, also said he thinks the transitway will be a large help to the upcounty’s transit deficiency for residents who do not live near the MARC commuter train line.
“These are great examples of how we can connect people rather than the traditional rail system … [But] if MARC really was a true alternative to Metro, that would be a game-changer,” he said.
Verma also said he wants the Planning Board to take a more aggressive approach to zoning for retail development and affordable housing around Metro stations, such as Glenmont and Wheaton.
“We’re not talking about putting in large density next to communities that don’t want to change,” he said.
Verma also said he would prioritize pedestrian safety improvements, using his neighborhood of Forest Glen as an example. It is walkable “in theory,” he said, but the lack of sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly features makes it dangerous.
Verma added that balancing the concerns of school crowding and the need for more development is difficult, but that ultimately the county must ultimately grow its tax base.
“If you’re not going to grow and you’re going to restrict development, you’re not going to get the revenue that funds our schools. It’s a difficult cycle to be in,” he said.
Charles Kauffman, a Bethesda attorney and former member of the board of the tourism agency Visit Montgomery, said the Planning Board must craft visions similar to the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus graduate school that will be built adjacent to Amazon’s new headquarters in Northern Virginia.
“I mean that’s magic. That’s amazing. What’s going on there is an example for all communities,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org