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A Useful Primer on How Montgomery County Evolved

Suburb: Planning Politics and the Public Interest, by Royce Hanson.  Cornell University Press, 2017.

Planning is inseparable from politics, Royce Hanson tells us at the start of “Suburb.” His 272-page history of Montgomery County land-use regulation amply proves the point.

As chair of the county Planning Board from 1972 to 1981 and again from 2006 to 2010, Hanson knows where the bodies are buried.  He dissects the political context of rezonings and master plans as no outsider could, telling some fascinating tales out of school.

The Town of Chevy Chase demands – and gets – the demolition of low-rent housing along its border as its price for accepting more density in downtown Bethesda. Moderates on the County Council, angered by the grandstanding of extreme slow-growthers, switch votes mid-meeting and send a pathbreaking 1974 Friendship Heights plan down to apparent defeat, then return a week later to approve it in a unanimous vote.

The book’s time span of decades lets Hanson evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t. As successes he cites the urbanization of areas near the county’s Metro stations, especially Bethesda and Silver Spring, and the county’s Agricultural Reserve.

Key to Bethesda’s growth was the presence of a large district of single-story commercial buildings around the future Metro station. There was still enough room for a sizable downtown after surrounding neighborhoods were pacified with buffers of parks and parking lots. Buildings sprang up once the Metro opened in 1984, but it soon emerged that the planners’ achievement lay more in the density than in the design. Bethesda’s throbbing heart is not the tall plaza-fronted buildings along Wisconsin Avenue that won their “beauty contest,” but the storefront-lined sidewalks of Woodmont and Norfolk avenues where the regulatory touch was lighter.

The revival of Silver Spring involved even more trial and error. Planning tools devised for upscale suburbs proved ineffective in a place that was sliding downhill economically. Two plans for large-scale redevelopment in suburban style fell apart in the 1990s – in retrospect, a piece of good fortune. A more modest plan advanced at the end of the decade coincided with a nationwide trend toward urban living, and the downtown took off.

Hanson points unflinchingly to failures, too. The outermost “corridor city” of Clarksburg arose less by conscious intention than out of bureaucratic and political inertia. Planners were unable to deliver on promises of walkability and environmental protection.

Another disappointment was the county’s “growth policy,” rules which supposedly ensure needed infrastructure is built to serve new development. The original intent of avoiding traffic congestion by concentrating growth around transit got lost in complex numbers games, and in practice the effect has been precisely the opposite. But planners and politicians alike have been loath to admit failure. After repeated revamping of the rules, growth policy lives on.

Anyone involved in Montgomery County affairs will learn from this book – the planning debates of the 1970s are very much alive in today’s Council deliberations and election campaigns. If your main interest is politics, you may choose to skip over the often tedious planning detail, but you will still emerge with a much better understanding of local issues and their political background. Professional planners anywhere will learn from the analysis of what has and hasn’t worked over the long term.

Where “Suburb” does fall short, for this reader at least, is the conceptual framework it applies to county politics. Hanson describes a progressive coalition, based on anti-development homeowners organized into civic associations, clashing with business and real estate developers. This is a good way to understand the events of the 1970s – although even then, as the 1974 Friendship Heights vote shows, the progressive and civic agendas were hardly identical.

Since then the two streams of thought have increasingly diverged.

The bitterly contested integration of Chevy Chase schools in the early 1980s brought progressives into conflict with Chevy Chase anti-development activists who fought against the merger of schools with economically and racially diverse populations. Then the decades-long battle over the Purple Line – which Hanson, surprisingly, barely mentions – pitted transit advocates, environmentalists, and civic associations in Silver Spring and along the Beltway against those same Chevy Chase neighborhoods.

The rift continues to widen. Housing shortages have created a youthful pro-development constituency, while the growing number of immigrant voters is largely disengaged from land use disputes. On the other side, the county’s Civic Federation no longer takes an environmentalist stance on transportation; its transportation committee is headed by a well-known advocate of highway-building. And in the hot dispute over the Westbard master plan, the long-established civic leadership of Chevy Chase was outflanked by a more radically anti-development group with conservative Republican activists among its leaders.

The current Montgomery County executive race tests the strength of these trends, with Councilmember Marc Elrich (D) relying on the continued vitality of a progressive-civic alliance and other candidates challenging him from different directions. Wherever your sympathies lie, “Suburb” is your indispensable guide to how we got here.


Ben Ross is chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford University Press, 2014).


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A Useful Primer on How Montgomery County Evolved