Monday, June 17, 2019

here's what montgomery county planning board candidates think

Next week is the biggest election in Montgomery County you can’t vote for. County Councilmembers will vote to appoint new members to the Planning Board, which oversees parks, reviews development proposals, and creates long-term transportation plans. Here’s what each of the candidates have to say about the big issues facing the county.

Two Bicyclists on Woodglen Cycletrack
Bicyclists on Woodglen Drive in White Flint. Photo by the author.
There are two seats coming up for a vote this month. One is for the chair, who serves full-time and basically sets the agenda for the Planning Board. It looks like the County Council will probably reappoint Casey Anderson, a longtime bicycle advocate who’s been chair since 2015 and served a term on the board before that. County Executive Marc Elrich says he’s “not a fan” of Anderson and can veto the council if they reappoint him, but insists he won’t interfere.

The other opening is to replace Norman Dreyfuss, a developer from Potomac who’s stepping down due to term limits. The council picked six finalists (out of 24) to succeed him, and interviewed them last Thursday, which you can watch online. Those six finalists also filled out questionnaires from the Montgomery County Sierra Club, and five of them participated in a forum hosted by the LGBTQ Democrats of Montgomery County (which I livetweeted). The candidates have some pretty big disagreements on how the county should grow, and the Planning Board's role in that.

Most candidates prefer transit over more highways

The biggest transportation fight in Montgomery County right now is Governor Larry Hogan’s plan to widen the Beltway and 270, adding up to four toll lanes. Most Planning Board candidates say they’d oppose giving up part of Rock Creek Park and several other county parks in the Beltway’s path, which could hold up the project.

We “must exhaust all transit options” before widening highways, said Partap Verma, a lawyer from Silver Spring and past GGWash contributor, at a forum hosted by the county’s LGBTQ Democrats earlier this month. Instead, he supports building the Purple Line and the county’s Bus Rapid Transit network, and worked with his neighbors to successfully shift funding from a proposed highway to new entrances to the Forest Glen and White Flint Metro stations.

Brandy Brooks, an activist from Wheaton who’s applying for both chair and board member, told the LGBTQ Democrats that climate change demands that we change how we get around. She told the Sierra Club she supports BRT and improving “non-BRT bus service for all parts of the county,” as well as all-day MARC service. Bill Kirwan, an architect from Silver Spring who served on the county's BRT Task Force in 2011, says he’s “skeptical of highway widening projects” and told the Sierra Club he supports the county’s new Bicycle Master Plan.

Two candidates support building M-83 (aka Midcounty Highway), an unfinished highway between Montgomery Village and Clarksburg: Julian Haffner, a lawyer from Gaithersburg, and Jennifer Russel of North Bethesda, an urban planner who has been involved in local land use issues for decades. “The absence of [M-83] has made commuting intolerable for residents of the Upcounty,” she wrote to the Sierra Club. Russel is the only candidate who endorses Hogan’s plans to widen 270 and 495, though she adds that she supports all of the county’s major transit projects.

Candidates support affordable housing, but disagree on how to provide it

As home prices in Montgomery County continue to rise, all six of the candidates mentioned the importance of affordable housing. Haffner, Russell, and Verma all note that a shortage of housing in the county is pushing up prices. Haffner supports increasing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which the county is currently looking at, while Kirwan wants to see affordable housing “integrated into every development proposal.” At the LGBTQ Democrats forum, Bethesda lawyer Charlie Kauffman put it simply: “I’m from Manhattan. We build big buildings in small footprints. Build more buildings.”

In his Sierra Club questionnaire, Verma mentions “missing middle” housing types, like duplexes and triplexes, which can offer a more affordable alternative to single-family homes. He also notes the need to increase density near transit, which allows the county to set aside more affordable homes through its MPDU (moderately priced dwelling unit) program and lower residents’ transportation costs because they won’t have to drive as much.

Brooks told the LGBTQ Democrats that the “market will never create the affordable housing we need." She wants to make “deeply affordable housing” in places like Bethesda and White Flint and “protect areas of the county where affordability already exists” like East County, by creating social housing or community land trusts to “take land out of the speculative market to control the cost of development." This has been done with some success in places like Durham, North Carolina but isn’t necessarily under the Planning Board’s purview, so it's unclear how this would actually work.

Most candidates oppose the county's housing moratorium

Montgomery County is anticipated to grow by 208,000 residents in the next 20 years, but is adding people at a faster rate than it’s adding new homes. We need over 80,000 new homes to accommodate our growing population, but many of the Planning Board’s efforts to provide those homes have met resistance from neighbors.

Most candidates oppose the county’s housing moratorium, which effectively bans new homes in areas with overcrowded schools. It currently affects large swaths of Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Bethesda, and will expand to more areas this summer. Haffner told the LGBTQ Democrats that it’ll drive up home prices, while Charlie Kauffman simply called it “dumb and self-defeating.”

Verma noted that keeping out new homes (and by extension, new residents) deprives the county of much-needed tax revenue. “If you’re not going to grow and you’re going to restrict development, you’re not going to get the revenue that funds our schools. It’s a difficult cycle to be in,” he told the County Council at his interview.

Brandy Brooks, who moved here from Massachusetts in 2015, is the lone supporter of the moratorium, saying that we need to make sure schools and roads are in place before allowing new homes. “We can’t continue to ask the community to bear the burdens of school overcrowding when we’re giving away profits to developers who don’t have to stay here and live with those conditions,” she told the LGBTQ Democrats.

Who's the biggest social justice champion?

The County Council voted last year to consider racial equity in all policy decisions and this year, they’ve held “community conversations” on the issue. Naturally, many of the Planning Board candidates have talked about their commitment to social justice. Kirwan and Haffner have both stressed the need to improve public outreach, while Verma, who would be the first Asian and openly gay Planning Board member, told the LGBTQ Democrats that he wants to increase outreach to queer and trans people, who are often "ostracized and silenced" and don’t participate in their communities.

Brooks has been the most outspoken, telling the County Council during her interview that the appointment would be “a test” of its commitment to racial equity. She told the Sierra Club that she wants to change the way the Planning Board works, developing plans “crafted by County residents through their direct decision-making,” instead of “simply having ‘input’ on plans put forward by Planning staff.”

But is that the most equitable process? Just last week, the Planning Board voted to remove a road diet on Little Falls Parkway in Bethesda built after a driver killed a bicyclist. Planning Department staff warned against this, saying it made the street safer by slowing traffic down, but neighbors complained about cut-through traffic and they prevailed.

Like County Executive Elrich, Brooks says that the county doesn’t listen to residents, but the loudest voices in most planning conversations are typically homeowners in mostly-white, mostly-affluent communities. Should the county be more responsive to neighbors who fight affordable housing, or don’t want better transit, or would rather ban new homes so renters’ children don't attend their local schools?

Montgomery County's housing moratorium, or any policy that restricts who can move here, empowers those who benefit from the status quo. As the Planning Department has found, we’re building fewer homes than we have for 20 years. It's hard to look at our higher home prices, stagnant incomes, declining tax revenues, and increasingly segregated schools and not see a connection. And as our county gets more diverse, the burden of these issues falls hardest on historically disadvantaged groups: minorities, immigrants, queer people.

Here's how you can weigh in

Several groups have weighed in with endorsements. The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce is backing Partap Verma and Jennifer Russel; the Sierra Club, Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Action Committee for Transit have also endorsed Verma, and all four groups support reappointing Casey Anderson as chair. Brandy Brooks has the endorsement of the Montgomery County committee of the Democratic Socialists of America.

You can also offer your thoughts to the County Council, which will vote on the new Planning Board members June 25, by emailing them at with your picks.

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