Route 198 in Burtonsville. Photo by Dan Reed.

Burtonsville’s been torn over whether or not to allow a controversial self-storage center to open up in its beleaguered village center. It’s a struggle between those who say we could use whatever business we can get, and those who say it’ll be a blight. “Is Burtonsville settling?” asked Eric Luedtke, East Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board member at a meeting earlier this month. Yes, Burtonsville is settling for the status quo, pushed by community activists who say they’re trying to retain our “suburban” character. While they say self-storage isn’t good enough for us, they’ve opposed any attempt to bring something better here.

Thanks to their policies, I can’t go to Burtonsville anymore for much other than gas and groceries. But I can head to Maple Lawn in Howard County — and soon, Konterra in Prince George’s — for the high-end shops and well-paying jobs that Burtonsville’s been clamoring for since before I was born. While our community leaders bicker about density and poor people, we’re left with empty storefronts, vacant office buildings, and a line of cars heading north on Route 29.

Think the Burtonsville village center looks shabby? Tell that to folks who demanded “minimal changes” to the run-down Route 198 strip at a community charrette last summer. Burtonsville’s shopkeepers said sidewalks in the village center weren’t necessary and that a public green would “attract undesirables.”

Meanwhile, local shops already ravaged by the Burtonsville Bypass lost the Amish Market, the only big draw it had. Civic activists complained that what would take its place was “massive” and “not particularly attractive.”  What we’re getting instead is a strip mall called Burtonsville Town Square that won’t even have a square and has already cannibalized the shopping center across the street.

Bethesda Lane Bad Panorama
Bethesda isn’t just a bunch of expensive houses. It’s a community that attracts and embraces economic investment rather than turning everyone away.


Meanwhile, our homeowners’ associations fight a status quo war of their own, saying thatbuilding affordable housing will create open-air drug markets. They’ve lobbied to keep public buses from serving their subdivisions and said they don’t want poor people walking through them, either.

And yet all this non-progress hasn’t made traffic any better. Our neighbors who advised County officials on the 1997 Fairland Master Plan declared that transit-oriented development was “unworkable” here. Nevermind the success of TOD in places like Downtown Silver Spring or Rockville Town Square. In an already built-up area, no transit means no development, which means no amenities, which means more traffic as we drive to get the things we need.

"Burtonsville has had a chance to get some really nice stuff,” fellow board member Tom Aylward said to Luedtke, “but it’s been killed by the master plan and the ardent supporters of the master plan.” East County’s civic establishment has spent decades complaining that we’re a “dumping ground” for poor people. They assume that if we just build enough expensive single-family houses we’ll turn into Bethesda. But Bethesda has sidewalks, a clean, attractive downtown, and quite a few apartments as well, not to mention excellent bus and Metro service. I think we’re missing something.

We should celebrate Burtonsville and try to hold on to the things we love. But as our NIMBY games slowly kill the business district, will we have anything left to save?