Monday began with a briefing from council staff about the health care and wellness task force that the council convened this year. The task force identified some helpful information, such as: the expenses per person for health care in MCPS and the county are basically the same, the county in total insures about 100,000 lives, roughly 20% of the insured population accounts for 80% of the expenses (which mirrors national trends), and the only real way to save money in health care spending over the long term is to reduce the growth of total county spending per plan member. The council and particularly the Gov Ops committee will return early next year to this topic. We need to find better ways to manage the spending of what is nearly $500 million per year on health care benefits and we do not invest enough to do that job right.
Monday evening I went to Clarksburg for a meeting with the Clarksburg Civic Association. We had a colorful and even contentious discussion over whether Clarksburg development has collapsed or not (I said it has, while some residents asserted that Clarksburg is booming; I believe the number of housing units that have been constructed in Clarksburg vs. the number approved supports my point), and talked about issues such as the proposed M-83 highway, sidewalks on 355, and so forth. Years ago, Montgomery County residents agreed to establish Clarksburg on certain terms, such as a development tax district that is higher than anywhere else in the county, in order to ensure that the new infrastructure in Clarksburg would be paid for by tax revenues generated in Clarksburg. Now, with rising energy costs and without the benefit of a real estate bubble, it is a question whether this model of development is fiscally sustainable.
Today’s highlight was passing the Wheaton Sector Plan, a document that describes how we want development to proceed in the future, largely in the Wheaton central business district. I am very happy about the plan on several fronts, including the more aggressive approach to job growth that it embraces for the downtown, the environmental protections that it encourages including in the Westfield green buffer, and, particularly, the neighborhood protections that it codifies. I listened closely to advocates from the surrounding neighborhoods and urged the council to find solutions for reversing the dismal commercial developments that have encroached on their single family neighborhoods — truly, there is nothing more depressing than having a storage facility in your single family neighborhood. I was glad to see that Council staff and the PHED committee found a great solution by putting in guidance and a zoning formula that will hopefully result in those properties being redeveloped in a town home style, which would be much more compatible with the neighborhood.
On Wednesday I attended Rail~Volution
, a national conference about building better communities through transit. I saw a presentation by Peter Calthorpe
that I will go ahead and say was the best presentation about planning and the environment that I have ever seen. We can see all around us now the evidence of a change in living patterns as people return to the cities and embrace/build the high quality of life that a great urban area can provide.
Here in Montgomery County we have great suburban neighborhoods and a truly rare agricultural belt, but our urban districts are only starting to blossom. It is in these urban districts, served by public transportation, that we must focus our future job and housing growth. That will be the best way to keep our suburban and rural ways of life intact while fostering the job growth we need to pay for our government services and accommodating the population growth that we know is coming. And I would say most importantly, it is a necessary change if we are going to avert catastrophic climate change. I think we all know that we cannot continue to add cars to the road and vehicle miles traveled at the same rate in the next 50 years as we have in the last 50 years. We have to make a bold change.
These concerns are what animates me in a lot of the daily battles that we have at the County Council. The council has a huge influence on land-use and transportation. Zoning, for example, is the intersection of community building, economic development, neighborhood preservation, environmental stewardship, transportation planning, and so many other key policy areas. It is NOT an eye-glazer!
On a separate note, if you have been reading this blog you know that I have been working diligently to sustain the Fenton Street Market
, a great example of grassroots economic development in the Silver Spring area. I am delighted to see this work get results as Hannah McCann and Megan Moriarty have announced they will work to keep the market going. There was a huge gap between the county and the market over use of public space in Silver Spring that we have been working to resolve. We are close now. If this works I hope to see similar efforts take root around the county.
Today’s council session featured a lengthy debate and then a
preliminary vote on the new proposed commercial-residential zones for
the areas in our communities with commercially-zoned property.
I’m pleased with the outcome. The proposal that I supported moves the
county more aggressively in the direction that I pledged to support
during my election campaign: a shift towards
environmentally-sustainable growth, development that is centered more
around public transportation and that allows us to add jobs and
housing without adding as many new cars to the roads; development that
builds more vibrant, people-oriented, walkable communities in our
urban areas while preserving our suburban and rural neighborhoods and
way of life.
Yes there are still many issues that we have to continue working on,
particularly how to promote more affordable housing production in the
county. We will return to those issues.
Over the past few months, I have heard many concerns from residents
about the new proposal. Some are legitimate and represent the kind of
difficult choices to balance the public interest that have to be made:
for example, some residents want all restaurants on commercial
property that is adjacent to residential property to go through an
expensive “site plan” process. These residents are worried about the
worst case scenarios (biker bars? chicken joints??). The problem is
that placing such a large barrier to new restaurants opening on this
kind of commercial property county-wide would have to result in fewer
restaurants, most or nearly all of which are desired by the community.
This means fewer opportunities for local entrepreneurs, and probably
a higher likelihood of chain restaurants since they would have more
capital to spend on planning expenses; not to mention less desirable
places to live across the board.
Other concerns that I heard were not founded. Many residents seemed
to think that we were rezoning residential property to commercial,
which of course was not true, or that we were replacing guidelines in
master plans with a one-size-fits-all zone, also not true.
The master plan process will continue to be where the community
gathers to form a vision for future development, which the planning
department will use to negotiate with developers as projects proceed.
The exciting and interesting thing about the new zoning proposal is
that it will vastly expand the number of projects that must have
negotiated public benefits. The community will get a lot more
amenities as a result, and residents will have a much stronger voice
in shaping the future of land-use and development in this county.
First up, breakfast with my friend and now member of the Montgomery
County Planning Commission, Casey Anderson. I first met Casey when I
knocked on his door in 2005 during my campaign for council, district
5. He was involved with a few local officials (Raskin) and advocacy
campaigns. We had a pretty involved discussion about county issues
right there on his door step and we’ve never stopped talking. Funny
enough he was in Clarksburg with Commission Chair Francoise Carrier
while I was there with Parks Director Mary Bradford on Friday. We
decided to tour together in the upcounty to mull over planning issues.
Then a meeting with Roger Berliner and Dan Hoffman to talk about
technology and OpenGov issues. I relayed some of what I learned last
week talking with Bryan Sivak, Maryland’s new Chief Innovation
Officer, who had a lot of great ideas about how to move forward.
Then into scheduling discussions and keeping up with the outstanding
legislative work by my team. We have a public hearing tomorrow on an
economic development bill I have sponsored.
Next, a committee meeting for T/E where we got a briefing on road
maintenance. I put my OpenGov learning into practice, requesting that
our DOT provide a map showing residents the condition and maintenance
schedule for county roads. We get so many inquiries on this issue that
I think there may be a big audience for the map. Our DOT does a superb
job with limited funds, making wise investments about how to maintain
the roads, in my view. But residents have to contact an official in
order to learn that kind of information and we could provide it
Last, some studying for tomorrow’s vote on the new CR zone. I am
excited about the implications of this zone for our commercial areas.
I think it will improve our environmental impact, enhance resident
input into development and promote transparency, facilitate more
growth in the right places rather than in traffic-generating sprawl
locations, require developers to provide more community benefits, and
make for much better places to live.