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Miranda Spivack: Greater transparency necessary for Montgomery County development decisions

The Montgomery County Council. County Council photo.

By Miranda S. Spivack

The writer is is a former Washington Post reporter and editor who reported extensively on land use issues. She writes frequently about government transparency, or lack thereof. Reach her at [email protected] or @mirandareporter on Twitter (at least for now).

After a contentious move to compel the resignation of the five-member Montgomery County Planning Board, the Montgomery County Council green-lighted a new 27-year general plan for county development that was largely the work of the planning board that it had forced to step down. The plan, optimistically known as Thrive 2050, attempts to focus development on some long-ignored corridors (Route 29, for instance). Its backers say it would help make some housing more affordable, while also adding transit and creating urban areas with amenities closer to previously disconnected and car-centric suburbs.

It sounds good on paper and, who knows, perhaps by 2050, with climate change threatening, the county will have done what the council and the planning agency promised. A twin package of legislation introduced recently by state Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Montgomery) offers to take some other steps: adding some requirements for greater transparency for members of the planning board; limiting their ability to make donations to politicians; and in what some on the County Council have complained, cutting into the council’s authority to appoint all board members by allowing the executive to nominate, subject to council approval, a candidate for either chair or vice chair.

That would be a small reprise of the system in use in the late 1960s and not changed for a few decades, when the power over the board shifted back to the council. It would partly parallel the way it works now in Prince George’s County, which, with Montgomery, makes up the bi-county Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Kramer’s proposals still would leave the Montgomery County Council in charge of land use decision making, allowing it to continue to hold the power to approve or veto Planning Board development recommendations. He has proposed a task force to examine some of these issues. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday evening.

Transparency is an oft-used phrase these days in government. At the opening session on Dec. 6 of the newly elected 11-member Montgomery County Council, new members Kristin Mink (D) and Laurie-Anne Sayles (D) and returning member Will Jawando (D), put down markers on the issue of transparency, saying that there are many instances of the council operating in the dark, and calling for greater light.

Land use would be a good place to start.

Montgomery County’s system for making decisions about new development, overseen by the council, may be one of its most difficult to observe and understand. Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D) has a $500,000 campaign finance war chest that is overflowing with donations from development interests. Wasting no time, he has a fundraiser planned for Thursday that is co-hosted by, among others, a prominent  developer, Aris Mardirossian, whose Bethesda Land LLC is involved in a controversy over a promised park in downtown Bethesda.

He is not only the new vice president of the council (in line to be president in a year), he also was appointed to head the council’s committee that oversees development. Perhaps it is not surprising that he complained that Kramer’s efforts were really a “power grab” by the executive branch. A staff member patiently described it differently, but Friedson was having none of it.

But here’s a thought: if the council is worried about its power and control over development, it could start by trying to exercise its oversight authority and do so openly.

You could start with the decision to force the resignation of the five-member planning board. For now, the bi-county Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Agency, which houses the Montgomery County planning department, is handling the investigation internally (while its spokeswoman told me it is an “independent” probe). The agency has enlisted the help of outside HR expert Susan Ridenhour, who is conducting interviews.

Because the investigation is ongoing, and the agency refuses to discuss a timetable for its conclusion, the council can conveniently hide behind both the investigative exemption and the personnel exemption of the state’s open records law. But at some point, the investigation will be completed. So at that point, the council could enlighten the public about why it pushed out the board members, how long they were paid or if there was some type of settlement using public funds, and why it then turned around and approved their signature document, Thrive 2050. Council President Evan Glass (D) demurred when I asked him about it, only saying that he is a proponent of as much sunshine as possible.

Here’s another place where the council could be more transparent. What are its plans to put in practice the goals of Thrive? What are the enforcement mechanisms? The implementation generally comes from the planning agency to the council in the form of Zoning Text Amendments. They can also come from within the council or the executive branch.

So who is planning what? And perhaps these ZTAs, as they are known, could be written in readable and understandable language, and the public could be clued in as they are being developed. That would be a major move towards greater transparency. The council held more than a dozen meetings about Thrive — but if you were to ask your next-door neighbor what it proposes, you will be met with blank stares. Glass told me he thought residents should try to become more attuned to what is going on in their community. Hard to argue with that.

Then there is the matter of affordable housing and transit. Exactly how will those come to fruition? And what, exactly, will Thrive — and the council — do to make that happen?

I recognize, as a former reporter and editor who focused on local news during my nearly 20 years at The Washington Post, that journalists also bear some responsibility for the public’s lack of knowledge about crucial issues affecting their communities. Given the journalism environment we are experiencing, it would be very helpful if the county’s overseers of development make it plain what their plans are, how they will go about implementing them, and what the enforcement mechanisms will be.

For years, the county has allowed developers to buy their way out of requirements for more affordable housing. They also have allowed crucial connecting roads to be delayed for decades. And when a developer promises to build amenities — a town center for instance in Clarksburg became a strip mall — how will the county enforce agreements that lured residents but the developer says they can no longer fulfill? These are basic issues that Thrive does not address, and the council has generally avoided for years.

Whoever ends up being the principal overseer of development in the county should in fact make a big plan to incorporate transparency and metrics for accountability that show how promises are being kept — or ignored. For starters, they can figure out how to ensure that when the development plans are finalized, they actually produce what was promised, and that the developers and the county government keep their end of the deal.



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Miranda Spivack: Greater transparency necessary for Montgomery County development decisions