2021 | Government

Supporters, opponents of county’s proposed master plan get chance to speak

Council considering first update in about 50 years

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Montgomery County Planning

Supporters and opponents of the county’s first proposed update to its general master plan since the 1960s had their first opportunity to give feedback to the Montgomery County Council on Thursday night.

The proposed update, called Thrive Montgomery 2050, would be the first major update since officials approved the 1964 General Plan on Wedges and Corridors, which was later amended in 1969 and 1993. 

Back in the 1960s, that plan included how growth should occur along major road corridors in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Now, with how much the region has grown, Thrive Montgomery focuses on just Montgomery County.

The plan not only focuses on providing recommendations for future land-use decisions and potential rezonings, but also suggests how county officials should combat economic, social and environmental issues and opportunities in the next 30 years. It is the main guide that will serve officials as they consider smaller area plans and overall zoning and land-use issues countywide.

Thrive Montgomery states that growth should be concentrated in major growth corridors countywide, like the I-95/U.S. 29 corridor and I-270/Md. 355, by amending zoning regulations to allow for compact growth, which includes infill development and redevelopment of existing properties to eliminate urban sprawl.

Thrive Montgomery also states that officials should look at creating communities that offer people a chance to access everything they need — work, groceries, services and amenities — within 15 minutes of where they live. To do that, it proposes updating rezoning standards to allow more dense development when necessary, while also using neighborhood land-use plans to ensure a high quality of life.

Overall, it states that a range of housing types — accessory dwelling units, duplexes and multifamily buildings — in certain neighborhoods will help create more diverse socioeconomic communities and make those areas of the county more affordable to live in long-term.

It also calls on increasing the number of income-restricted affordable housing units, and allowing projects and zoning that support more creative housing types — including single-room-occupancy units, tiny houses, shared housing and small apartment buildings, especially near transit and employment centers — to increase the supply of housing in the county. 

Thrive Montgomery says county officials should focus on improving the public transportation system, such as by converting existing traffic lanes and on-street parking to bike lanes and walkways or expanding the bus rapid transit or general bus service. 

The plan also describes ways to improve overall building design, arts, culture, and parks and recreation countywide, including:

  • Encouraging sustainability in current and potential development, such as net-zero or carbon positive buildings
  • Promoting public art and cultural spaces in major corridors
  • Convincing property owners, nonprofits and government to maximize use of parks for programming and public art
  • Connecting neighborhoods and people to county parks through an improved trail network
  • Acquire new land to preserve and protect natural resources, and to combat effects of climate change 

The county’s Planning Board signed off on the plan in April, sending it to County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council. It now faces a review of multiple months, with Council President Tom Hucker hinting that a final decision could likely be in the fall or winter.

More than 40 people testified on Thursday individually or on behalf of organizations. Among them, opinion was pretty evenly split on the plan. 

Proponents of the plan praised it because of its goals to create more dense development when practical, which they said would add more housing units of various types and make the county a more inclusive, affordable place to use. 

Opponents of the plan criticized it for encouraging rezoning in areas where communities have long been established. They added that by creating an environment where units across all areas of the market could be built, not enough affordable units would be built to meet current demand.

Ron Basumallik of Bethesda and many other supporters of the plan centered their argument on a historical premise: around the 1960s, planning officials and other key players in Montgomery County and elsewhere decided to adopt strict land-use patterns, specifically favoring single-family housing in most cases.

“Let’s get back to allowing everyday people to take small risks for the benefit of society. … Let’s let land develop naturally and dynamically instead of strictly locking in place for the benefit of a few conservatives who want nothing to do with change,” Basumallik said. 

Cary Lamari, an Aspen Hill resident, and other opponents of the plan also used a historical argument. They said many communities around the county have spent decades building a solid, working foundation, and Thrive Montgomery 2050 would ruin that work and further segregate the county. 

“The plan speaks to affordability, yet it displaces tens of thousands of hard-working families, which are in need and currently live along these corridors,” Lamari said of housing proposals along major corridors countywide. “This place chooses to create gentrification and further divide communities.”

Many who testified for or against stuck to prepared scripts to fit their comments within a two-minute limit. Wheaton resident Daniel Marcin, however, commented off the cuff.

Marcin, a Thrive Montgomery supporter, said the county has done enough planning in recent years — now, it’s time for action. 

“I understand there’s a lot of things to do, it’s hard to be a council member. … There’s a lot of competing interests,” Marcin said. “But let’s take the plan and do the things in the plan.”

Those things, according to supporters who spoke Thursday, include rezoning throughout the county to avoid “exclusionary” practices favoring single-family homes, serving wealthier communities.

But opponents of that argument said that sort of development would actually worsen the problem by creating more housing that is unaffordable for most county residents. 

Julie Davis, a Friendship Heights resident, said the plan would not consider whether multifamily or other similar housing types properly fit in with existing neighborhoods that have many single-family homes.

“It recommends one-size fits all, housing-by-right pattern books to be created by the planning board’s staff and/or consultants,” Davis said.

Overall, council members heard more than 90 minutes of testimony on Thursday. The next scheduled public hearing for Thrive Montgomery 2050 is June 29.

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