Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, from MNCPPC-Montgomery

Montgomery County, and most of the Washington region, is far from typical of the United States in many ways. Both Montgomery County and the region as a whole have higher education and income levels than the nation on average, and even the less affluent parts of the county have a median income that is well above the national median income. However, on land use, the county is grappling with the very same issues as many other communities throughout the United States.

Two weeks ago, Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson told the Montgomery County Civic Federation that the county “needs to adopt an urban development model to handle growth, demographic changes and a diminishing supply of developable land.” Many inner suburban communities throughout the nation are grappling with questions about how to plan for future growth. Most would like to preserve some agricultural land uses, as Montgomery has with the Agricultural Reserve. Most would like to preserve some undeveloped land. At the same time, most would like grow their tax base to keep up with increasing demand for services. It’s impossible to maintain agriculture and undeveloped land and continue to expand a tax base using car-dependent development patterns. But many residents of Montgomery County, and counties throughout the nation, also resist a shift toward denser, more walkable development.

Montgomery County is ahead of most of the other inner suburban counties in the United States because of its wealth, its legacy pre-World War II towns, and its eleven Metro stations, plus two more on the DC border. Those elements conditions allowed the county to construct Bethesda at a time when most of the nation (and the rest of the county) was building edge cities. Just as it took a lot of political will to change the zoning and create tax incentives for smart growth in Bethesda, it will also take a lot of political will for the next generation of suburban-to-urban retrofits around the White Flint, Twinbrook, Shady Grove, and Glenmont Metro stations. In Montgomery, and in the nation at large, necessity will be the mother of invention. From the Gazette article:

As planners work to create a new growth policy recommendation for the council to enact next year, Hanson says they need to rethink and reinvent the way development is planned and put less emphasis on roads because little more traffic capacity is likely to be added after the Intercounty Connector and Montrose Parkway, now under construction, are built. …

“Time and costs of commuting and home maintenance are making big homes on big lots in the exurbs out of favor, [Senior Vice President Stephen] Nardella [of single-family house developer Winchestor Homes] said.”

“Drive ‘til you qualify” was okay when that drive was ten miles. It’s not so great when that drive is 50 miles. Will Montgomery County and other communities across the nation muster the political will to build something different from the traditional exurban housing developments as they grow?

Earlier this month, the Montgomery County Council approved an Avalon Bay development on the northern border of downtown Wheaton. The project will include 310 housing units and a new modern Safeway, which will move from its current location at the intersection of Reedie Drive and Georgia Avenue, above the Metro Station. Moving the Safeway will greatly improve downtown Wheaton, and the housing units in the development will be attractive to prospective buyers while the store will have a large customer base in close proximity.

Still, before approving the project, the County Council reduced the density from 100 units per acre to 50 and then again to 40. “Montgomery County can’t decide whether it wants to be urban or suburban,” said Councilmember Nancy Floreen (at-large). Perhaps Floreen herself can’t decide, either:

“I think the vast majority of residents bought into a suburban lifestyle, [and] some of these planning initiatives are urban and require massive amounts of infrastructure,” she said. “The real frontier in Montgomery County is in paying for these changes,” and with the economy slumping it is “not the ideal time to address that,” Floreen said, although she agrees with much of what Hanson is advocating. …

It takes political will to make such a change [for higher density], and usually surrounding communities oppose higher density, [Hanson] said.

Some of that political will means resisting the arguments of nearby residents who argue, as they successfully did recently in Kensington Heights and Rockville, that three-story townhouses or four-story apartments will “tower” over their homes and “destroy” their neighborhoods.

Our nation had a big suburbia party (except no one came because no one knew their neighbors) these past six decades. We’re now starting to feel the effects of the hangover, such as a lack of affordable housing near jobs, foreign oil addiction, and an exponential acceleration of open land being paved over.

Montgomery County has been creating the blueprint for other suburban jurisdictions to follow in order to assure their own long-term viability. It is slowly (and I do mean slowly) coming to terms with the fact that it is no longer some sort of fringe bedroom community. It is an economic dynamo and home to a couple of centers of culture and vitality that rival the downtowns of some American “cities.” However, I fear that Montgomery, and most of the other suburban jurisdictions across the United States, won’t have the political will to stand up to all the super-local selfish interests until it’s too late.