2022 | Opinion

Opinion: Thrive Montgomery’s vision for county’s future is strong, but can be improved

Here are some amendments to make the proposed master plan better

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It is no easy task to plan for the future of a county with 421 parks, 150 sub watersheds and more than 1 million people — a population expected to increase by 200,000 in 30 years, per the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. (See p. 14 of the Fall 2018 Growth Trends report.)

There has to be a balance with the urgent need to address climate change, social and racial justice, and economic growth — all under the shadow of a pandemic, an affordable housing crisis, and mounting inflation.

That’s why the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) overall supports the Planning Board’s proposed new General Master Plan (released in April 2021).

The draft version of Thrive Montgomery 2050 by the County Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee (released in October 2021) makes minor improvements on several fronts and keeps the overall elements of the Planning Board draft. While not perfect, both of these drafts address errors and omissions of the past, are aware of present needs and challenges, and are thoughtful about the future.

The plan currently awaits the Montgomery County Council’s approval.

ANS has been engaged in commenting on, revising, and improving the plan since the beginning of the process in 2019. The plan has room for improvement, but it lays out a strong foundation for a diverse, welcoming, and climate-resilient future.

What’s right

Thrive Montgomery 2050 strives to embrace the breadth of Montgomery County by improving people’s quality of life across many domains.

The plan focuses on reducing urban sprawl by calling for higher-density housing built near transit corridors (see pages 45-46, 80, 99-101 of the Planning Board’s version). This key measure is a win-win for addressing a housing crisis and climate crisis.

Additionally, the plan focuses on people by aiming to meet basic needs within a 15-minute walking distance from home (see pages 45 and 126). This approach balances growth and climate priorities and is being replicated around the world.

One highlight of the plan is the protection of and increased access to greenspaces for all communities across the county (see pages 155-122).

In Montgomery County, as in other nearby jurisdictions, we live with planning decisions made in a post-WWII era, when discriminatory housing practices segregated neighborhoods based on race, religion, and class. Those policies still cast their shadow on housing and wealth distribution. (Read more in ANS’s article on redlining.)

While the county’s 1964 “Wedges and Corridors” Master Plan laid out a powerful vision for growth in key areas and protection of natural landscapes in others, it was a product of its time that didn’t take demographic inequities into account. Thrive Montgomery 2050 rightly calls out the unjust and inequitable land distribution that exists in the county parks and housing today (see p. 93) and will finally break the legacy of post-WWII segregationist planning decisions.

What can be improved  

Thrive’s vision is strong, but it is only a vision. The structural, systemic, and policy change required to transform these visions into action is where the challenge lies.

The Audubon Naturalist Society supports the plan, but we ask the Montgomery County Council to make amendments to strengthen the likelihood of its successful implementation:

  • Add the goal of protecting and increasing the number of forest ecosystems and the tree canopy in the county.
  • Increase inclusion of people and communities of color in the decision-making process around implementation of Thrive.
  • Include a racial equity and social justice impact (RESJ) statement from the Office of Legislative Oversight as requested by the Montgomery Racial Equity Network (MORE).
  • Integrate climate goals included in the recently released Montgomery County Climate Action Plan (CAP) into Thrive. Land use, including transportation and buildings (commercial and residential), makes up 92% of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions (see the Climate Action Plan work group presentation on p. 2). (Read more about ANS’s CAP actions.)
  • Emphasize meeting and exceeding existing stormwater management regulations. Develop a comprehensive network of green infrastructure that supports existing watershed restoration plans and prepares the county to mitigate negative impacts from climate-driven increases in the frequency and intensity of storms.
  • Ensure that the growing population of seniors and people with disabilities also has equal access to ample housing options by developing policy items to support this goal.
  • Include a “no new highways” policy that focuses on moving people out of cars and into using more climate friendly transit alternatives.

What’s next

Thrive Montgomery 2050 must be approved, so that communities can focus on creating policies that turn the vision of Thrive into action.

For example, Thrive proposes increasing tree and forest cover in parks, but fails to include strong language supporting “no net loss of trees and forests” and a “net gain of trees and forests.” (see p. 126)

Forest preservation and tree cover gains should be spelled out in Thrive. And council legislation should follow to amend the county Forest Conservation Law to preserve and increase forest cover.

While the amendments we want are important, overall, ANS supports one of the most critical goals of Thrive Montgomery 2050: to increase housing around transit corridors while pairing these developments with sustainable and green infrastructure. Everyone should have access to the best environmental quality in their neighborhood, and that means green neighborhoods with housing for all people.

For a climate-livable future, we must very quickly get people out of cars and into new ways of living with a smaller carbon footprint. Thrive Montgomery 2050 will help us require less private paved space per person, so that we can preserve much more of nature for all to enjoy.

Striking the balance between urbanism and environmental protection is needed now for Montgomery County to grow and develop with a sustainable future.

Improving and ultimately passing Thrive Montgomery 2050 will be an important first step in building an equitable and climate-resilient Montgomery County that prioritizes people and the environment simultaneously.

Denisse Guitarra of Germantown is the Maryland Conservation Advocate at the Audubon Naturalist Society.

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