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TRULY SMART GROWTH: Q&A

You're the only candidate for County Executive who is not taking and has never taken money from developers or the attorneys who represent developers. Why?

Frankly, I don’t believe that lawmakers should be voting on land-use decisions when a lot of their money comes from people who stand to profit off those decisions. While I am known for my open-door policy and will meet with anyone, I have the freedom to make decisions that may not be popular with powerful interests. You will never have to question whether I am working for you or for big-money donors.

You've said Montgomery County's rhetoric about smart growth doesn't match its actions. What are we doing wrong and what would truly smart growth look like? 

The county has increased commercial density in areas more than one-quarter of a mile from transit and increased residential density in areas more than a half-mile from transit. These areas are outside of the widely accepted, research-based definitions of walkability and transit-oriented development, and this approach guarantees more auto usage while disincentivizing real transit-oriented development opportunities.

I believe the right place to increase density is around Metro stations. I also think we must recognize that new development will bring additional cars; that reality must be addressed and mitigated as much as possible. Being near a Metro station is insufficient on its own, which is why building the bus rapid transit (BRT) system I designed is essential. Residents must have real transit options that are reliable, frequent, and take them from where they live to where they work, shop, and enjoy leisure time. Concurrent with implementing the BRT system (and it must be a system, not one route), RideOn routes need to be restructured to reach residents in suburban areas and efficiently feed into BRT routes. We also need to improve the interconnectivity of existing suburban communities through thoughtfully implemented bike- and pedestrian-friendly improvements.

 

We know where development belongs and we know where transit belongs; the problem in this county is one of political will. Other jurisdictions don’t let development bleed out to areas that aren’t ripe for it, but we do because developers have far too much influence here. Reducing that influence would benefit low-income communities, middle-class residential neighborhoods, and the environment at the same time.

How have you advanced your vision of smart growth during your time on the Montgomery County Council?

I have, with varying success, been able to modify plans to be more sensitive to surrounding communities, focus density where it is important, and make development more responsible for providing infrastructure. I think my biggest accomplishment has been to help residents organize and strategize in their approach to combating the worst of the proposed changes put forth in those plans. The most recent example of this is in Bethesda, where I worked with residents to reduce heights and preserve affordable housing on the edges, and to adequately fund parks and green space. I am also proud of the leading, early, and sustained  role (over 4 years, in 3 separate efforts) I played in the fight to save Ten Mile Creek from proposed development that would have destroyed the last best stream in the county. Similarly, I partnered with activists in Lyttonsville to preserve light industrial zoning, which prevented the loss of hundreds of jobs. In Westbard, I worked with the community to secure major reductions in density along River Road and in the process protect light-industrial zones and the jobs they create. And I fought successfully against zoning changes that would have eliminated some of the county’s most affordable housing in the Long Branch, White Oak and Glenmont communities.

How do you decide whether or not to vote for a master plan or sector plan? Can you give some examples?

 

We haven’t seen a truly responsible plan in Montgomery County in many years and I have consistently been the “1” opposed in 8-1 votes for irresponsible plans. I am sometimes conflicted about whether or not to vote for a plan, however - as I was in Westbard, for example - for tactical reasons. While I felt strongly that the Westbard plan was bad overall, I received conflicting advice from advocates, some of whom thought the plan was too terrible to vote for and others who thought that, because I had won major concessions on River Road, I should vote for the plan. I could see both perspectives. On the one hand, I hate voting for plans that are bad overall and don't want people to think that such plans have my seal of approval. On the other hand, I want to mitigate the damage on plans that are going to pass with or without my vote, and if I vote no on every irresponsible master plan no matter how many concessions I am able to secure, I worry that I will lose the leverage I have to extract concessions at all. On each plan, I ask myself whether voting no or voting yes conditional on an important change will yield a better result for county residents.

 

Ultimately, on the Westbard plan, I thought that a yes vote conditional on the reductions in density along River Road was the best of two bad options. During and after voting, however, I continued to speak out about how I thought the plan was a very bad one overall, and I will continue to speak out and work to change upcoming plans - voting no unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. I recently voted against the Rock Spring and White Flint 2 sector plans for a number of reasons, foremost of which is that they are not proximate to transit and therefore cannot support the density that was placed there.

 

As County Executive, I will use available resources to highlight problems in plans and work to improve them as needed.

How will you change Montgomery County's planning process to make it more transparent and responsive to residents?

I want to bring back citizen advisory boards, which gather a diverse group of people - developers, citizens (of all views), and planning professionals - and works through a process of very thorough community involvement and discussion that results in far greater community buy-in. Too many of the plans that have come before the County Council in the last ten years have disregarded community engagement as well as the advice of the professional planning staff. The current process leaves citizens with no meaningful role other than attending a charette (design meeting) and putting stickies on the wall. Charette results are rarely translated into plans regardless of who participates in them; they should be part of the public process but are not a substitute for deeper community engagement. So I’d like to have broader formal and informal representation, meaningful discussions, and ownership of results. I’m also interested in what are known as “form-based code approaches;” they produce zoning decisions that often provide more certainty for both citizens and developers as to the size, scope, and appearance of development because they have reached agreement on how development should proceed.

Additionally, executive staff have an important role in the planning process, and I will be sure that my staff understands clearly that the community is to be respected and included. As County Executive, I will work with the County Council to appoint Planning Board members who understand the importance of working with and respecting the community and professional recommendations. I will also work with the University of Maryland and their advanced modeling software so that we have a clearer picture of the impact of new development on congestion as well as how best to mitigate that impact. I will make access to the modeling available to the public so they can see the inputs and outputs from our work.

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