The Accidental Activist
Amanda Farber isn’t totally opposed to the construction in downtown Bethesda—she’s just tired of watching buildings go up and trees come down
A woman gripping a black binder hurried to the front of the Montgomery County Planning Board hearing room in Silver Spring and sat at an oval table along with several others who had signed up to testify. She plunked down the binder, paused, then slid it in front of her like a buffer between her and the tabletop microphone.
This was not her comfort zone.
It was her first time at a planning board meeting. A friend had invited her to the March 10, 2016, session, but when she agreed to go, she wasn’t expecting to do anything but watch and listen. In grade school, her teachers prodded her not to be so shy in class; years later, public speaking still made her nervous.
But the future of her community was up for debate, so she felt compelled to suck it up and say something. As other speakers testified, the woman shoved her glasses onto her head. Then she moved them down. Pushed them up. Yanked them off altogether. Finally, all eyes were on her.
“You, ma’am…why don’t you introduce yourself,” planning board Chair Casey Anderson said. One day, she would convince this county official to appear in public dressed as Woody, the Montgomery Parks mascot—a tree with a wild grin—but they weren’t on those terms yet. She pulled the mic close and leaned inward.
“My name is Amanda Farber. I’m a resident of East Bethesda,” she said. “I’ve been a resident for 16 years, and I’m from the area originally. I wanted to speak about a couple different issues regarding parks.”
As officials drafted the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, she said, they should consider the relationships between parks and tall buildings. For many years, Veteran’s Park had served as a cheery gathering spot in the heart of Woodmont Triangle. But these days, the shadow of a new 17-story high-rise was too often stealing sunshine from the brick plaza. “It is no longer a nice little sunny space with shade trees,” Farber said.
In the weeks and months that followed, Farber and her neighbors would describe that feeling—of being hemmed in by high-rises—as “canyonization.” But that wouldn’t be her only concern. After the March 2016 meeting, she was hooked on the ongoing debate over how to write the sector plan, a document that envisioned the community’s buildings, roads and parks in the coming decades. She printed out the drafted plan, its 2006 predecessor and an older plan from 1994. She’d look at them during the day between her kids’ sports practices, carpool pickups and her part-time job as a preschool assistant. She’d read herself to sleep, then wake up in the dead of night and pick up where she left off.
“It was how I would see people study in law school,” says her husband, Evan, an attorney. “She was devouring the content.”
Over the next year, Farber banded together with neighbors and surprised herself by emerging as a leader of the East Bethesda Citizens Association (EBCA)—she later became co-vice president—which represents more than 1,200 households. She pulled no punches as she conveyed residents’ opposition to towering buildings near their homes and their longing for more pockets of natural beauty and places to play outside with their kids. Still, planners came to like her, and politicians grew to trust her. She wasn’t seen as a stereotypical NIMBY who was opposed to all development. Instead, she became known for her moderation, as someone who appreciates the tangle of competing interests inherent in land-use planning and recognizes that neighborhoods evolve over time.
“Amanda became someone my office looked to out of respect for the way she went about her work,” says Roger Berliner, who represents Bethesda on the Montgomery County Council.
Those who know Farber, 42, say she’s no pushover. She’s a master’s-educated occupational therapist with formidable research skills, a mania for record-keeping and the energy of Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope on a sugar high. On the other hand, she’s also a Star Wars nerd whose self-deprecating inner monologue keeps her from taking her own obsessions too seriously.
Oh well, there you go again, Amanda, she’ll think to herself. Is that a really crazy idea or just a little crazy idea? It’s not that these thoughts stop her, she says. They just make her chuckle a little.