Wednesday, May 22, 2019

you should pay attention to the montgomery county planning board this summer

Two of the most powerful, influential positions in Montgomery County’s government are up for election this summer. The catch: you can’t vote for them. Here’s why you should pay attention to these contests for Montgomery County Planning Board.

The Planning Board oversees development, community plans, and open space in Montgomery County. Photo by the author.

The Planning Board works with community members and elected officials to make Montgomery County a better place to live. It oversees the county’s park system, reviews development proposals, and helps create long-term plans for transportation, parks, neighborhoods, and the General Plan, the county’s overarching vision.

Five members serve on the Planning Board for up to two four-year terms: four board members, who serve part-time, and the chair, who serves full-time. They meet in the very distinctive-looking Park and Planning Commission building in downtown Silver Spring (or as I call it, the Fortress of Planning), and they play a very consequential role in shaping the county’s future.

The County Council votes to appoint each of the Planning Board members, who go through a lengthy vetting process. Once the applications are in, the council selects a group of applicants to interview in person, broadcast on live television. At some point after that, councilmembers vote for the appointment. No more than three members can be of the same political party, and the County Executive can also veto appointments he doesn't like, though this power has only been used once, in 1986.

(Full disclosure: I was a finalist for Planning Board in 2017, and it was a good learning experience!)

Here's what's happening with the Planning Board chair

There are two Planning Board seats coming up for appointment this year. One is for the chair, currently occupied by Democrat Casey Anderson, a lawyer and longtime bike advocate who lives in Silver Spring. He first joined the board in 2011, became chair in 2014 when then-chair Francoise Carrier stepped down, and was appointed to a full term in 2015.

The chair basically sets the tone for the Planning Department’s work. Under his watch, we’ve had new master plans for downtown Bethesda, aging office parks in Rock Spring, and diversifying suburban neighborhoods along Veirs Mill Road; research on the county’s changing retail needs and ongoing housing shortage; and plans for over 1,100 miles of bike paths. Last year, he visited all 421 parks in the county, indicating a renewed focus on our parks system.

Anderson can have one more term as chair, and doesn’t have an opponent this year: Fellow board member Natali Fani-Gonzalez said she would challenge him, then said she wouldn’t, perhaps because she couldn’t get enough votes from the council.

The big game is for the other, open seat

Another seat will be vacant this summer: Republican Norman Dreyfuss, a developer from Potomac, is finishing his second and final term. This seat is very competitive: It's open to people of any political affiliation, and twenty-four individuals applied for his seat. The County Council just chose six of them for interviews, which will be broadcast online and on television June 13. Here’s who they are:
  • Brandy Brooks is a community activist from Wheaton who unsuccessfully ran for Montgomery County Council last year. Before moving here in 2015, she served on the zoning board in Somerville, Massachusetts.
  • Julian Haffner is a lawyer from Gaithersburg who unsuccessfully ran for Maryland House of Delegates last year. His wife, Laurie Anne-Sayles, is a Gaithersburg city councilmember.
  • Charles Kauffman is a lawyer from Bethesda who served on the board of Visit Montgomery, the county’s tourism bureau.
  • William Kirwan is an architect from Silver Spring who used to be chair of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission.
  • Jennifer Russel is an urban planner from North Bethesda whose firm, Rodgers Consulting, has designed many of Montgomery County’s largest planned communities. She’s chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, which advocates (among other things) for widening I-270.
  • Partap Verma is a lawyer from Silver Spring who organized a community group, Friends of Forest Glen and Montgomery Hills, to advocate for pedestrian safety improvements along Georgia Avenue and to redevelop the area around the Forest Glen Metro station. He's a past GGWash contributor, and if appointed would be the board's first Asian member and first openly gay member.
Even though you can’t vote for one of these six people, you can still weigh in on their appointment to the Planning Board. The County Council pays close attention to public feedback on the candidates, like letters, emails, and phone calls. Many organizations and interest groups in the county make endorsements, like the Montgomery County Sierra Club, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, CASA de Maryland, or the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

And for the first time, there will be a community forum where you’ll get to meet and hear from the Planning Board candidates. The LGBTQ Democrats of Montgomery County will host a forum for the six Planning Board finalists June 3 from 7 to 8:30 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building. While housing and transportation issues have a disproportionate effect on queer people, it’s a good chance to hear each of the candidates’ overall vision for the county as well. You can RSVP here.

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