Fairland Park Community proposed site plan. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

In eastern Montgomery County, fears of low-income housing have galvanized the community. Pushed by civic activists who were able to rewrite the local Master Plan to favor the development of single-family homes, the Planning Board approved a waiver last Thursday reducing the number of required Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs) in a proposed 365-home Burtonsville development called Fairland Park. The project is part of the long-awaited Konterra “mini-city”, which covers 2,200 acres in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties west of Laurel.

The Fairland Master Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, which guided that document‘s revision years ago, sought to reduce the number of MPDUs at Fairland Park from 73 to 48, saying a “token amount of additional townhouses” would “neither result in community diversity or distinctiveness,” according to the staff report.

Twenty years ago, planners targeted East County for what they called “transit serviceability,” approving thousands of apartments and townhomes - some of which were MPDUs - adjacent to the proposed route of a light-rail line that was never even funded. Leading civic activists, who claim the area is a “dumping ground” for affordable housing that’s created traffic and hurt local schools, work to ensure that those mistakes aren’t repeated.

Burtonsville resident and committee chair Stuart Rochester says building the required amount of MPDUs would only exacerbate the “demographic and housing imbalances” in East County, but he fails to distinguish between attached housing and affordable housing. “Townhouses are being converted to rental units in the challenged neighborhoods east of US 29,” he writes in a letter to the Board, “and elementary school transiency rates remain among the highest in the County.”

Lisa Schwartz, planner from the county Department of Housing and Community Affairs, says if you want a balanced community, don’t set aside all the townhouses for poor people. Unlike conventional suburban neighborhoods, which segregate homes by type and price, the proposed site plan already mixes single-family homes and townhomes, many of which will be alley-served. Schwartz e-mailed the Planning Department requesting that the developer consider including some market-rate townhouses in the project. “It is DHCA’s position that such a plan would be more in keeping with the Fairland Master Plan’s general recommendation to ‘encourage dispersal of MPDUs in new developments,’” she writes.

The community is already sore about the Fairland Park project because an original proposal would have incorporated and privatized the public Gunpowder Golf Course. Now that the developers have dropped the golf course component, the advisory committee worries that the subdivision won’t “create a distinctive community of ‘move-up’ housing,” as prescribed by the Master Plan - and that any attached housing will further lower property values. It also strengthens the fear that Montgomery County is “playing favorites” with the more affluent communities on the west side.

Burtonsville does deserve a say in the process, but encouraging the use of a loophole that makes an already-expensive housing market even more inaccessible is disappointing use of their voice. Whether or not homes are built with government subsidies, prices go up for everyone when the supply of new units is decreased. And by offering as many as three types of housing - “move-up” single-family homes along with both market-rate and subsidized attached homes - Fairland Park will be more accessible to a broader range of East County residents, not to mention a stronger investment for its developers.