Nancy Floreen. Image from the candidate's website.

If Nancy Floreen becomes Montgomery County Executive, we will often disagree with her. We will probably even run petitions against some of her initiatives. Even so, we think Montgomery County voters should choose Floreen in the November 6 election.

Floreen, currently an at-large member of the County Council, changed her party registration from Democrat to Independent to run against fellow councilmember and Democratic nominee Marc Elrich, who eked out a 77-vote win over David Blair in a field of six candidates in the primary.

Over the past three decades, Nancy Floreen has often been an essential ally in tough fights for walkable communities and affordable housing across Montgomery County. We have serious concerns about her tepid commitment to transit and eagerness for road-building everywhere, but after careful debate, we have concluded the stakes are too high to remain on the sidelines.

We believe that Marc Elrich would paralyze Montgomery County and exacerbate inequality and segregation in housing and jobs, while Robin Ficker, the Republican nominee and self-described outsider, is completely unqualified for the office. We hope our readers consider our reasons as they make their own decisions in this race.

Floreen wants you, or your child, to have a place to live

Many people who grew up in Montgomery County now cannot afford to live in the communities of their childhoods. New families have to live farther and farther from jobs. And the county sees intense segregation along income and racial lines.

Nancy Floreen has been a vital leader in implementing strong policies around housing to address these problems. She has served for many years on, and often as chair of, the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee. In that role, she has brokered compromises over numerous Sector Plans to ensure Montgomery County builds places for people of all income levels to live.

She recently worked to reform the county’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program, where developers can build more than zoning would typically permit in exchange for affordable housing. The changes would apply the MPDU rules to more developments and aim to address a number of flaws, such as what she sees as “really quite low payments” developers made to get out of the requirement.

One change would require 11- to 19-unit developments to pay into the county’s housing fund, which they don’t have to now. Floreen argued that letting developers pay instead of building affordable units will help address the very real problem of MPDUs with very high condominium fees that lower- and middle-income families can’t afford. On the other hand, it could discourage adding affordable housing in areas with the best schools and closest to jobs.

Floreen supports accessory dwelling units (ADUs), where homeowners can rent out a part of their house or a separate building like a garage. She said the county just made “it easier to have ADUs” but there are “still ridiculous constraints.”

Overall, she supports “density, housing, [and] the right kind of development.” She even “would love to see duplexes everywhere.” She argued that the county must revisit many of its restraints on allowing new homes across the county. “The demand for housing and being here is not going away,” she said.

Floreen helped shepherd the White Flint Sector Plan to passage. That plan is a national model of transit-oriented development, offering density bonuses in exchange for affordable housing or other amenities that the White Flint area needs. She supported this plan over the objections of many of her neighbors in nearby Garrett Park, where she lives and served as mayor.

More recently, when a group of Bethesda residents a demanded that the county “protect their neighborhood,” Floreen courageously replied: “When people say protect the neighborhood, I hear, ‘Protect me from affordable housing.’” Floreen was one of just three councilmembers who voted to apply affordable housing bonuses in all of downtown Bethesda, and then joined in a council compromise to cover part of the downtown. Elrich voted against both measures.

Elrich: Often the lone dissenter against walkable communities

Marc Elrich has been the only councilmember to vote against several sector plans that would bring more housing and walkable, transit-oriented development to places like Bethesda, Long Branch, Chevy Chase Lake, and White Flint 2. For the White Flint 2 plan, he claimed that the proposed development was too far from transit, even though his own BRT proposal provides at least two stations there. At opportunity after opportunity, Elrich has pushed for fewer new homes across Montgomery County.

We interviewed both candidates and discussed the school capacity caps that have resulted in a moratorium on new housing in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and parts of Bethesda. For Elrich, “the schools are full anyway” was a common refrain, used as a trump card against development he opposes anyway. He implied that taxes on developers and state aid are the only ways to fund school construction.

Floreen, on the other hand, sees the moratorium as an urgent problem we can and must solve. She advocates for working with the school board to adjust boundaries and magnet program sites, and investing county funds in school construction if necessary.

Elrich speaks often about equity, but the real-world outcome of Elrichism would be to entrench exclusive swaths of Montgomery County as off-limits and unaffordable to all but the highest earners, reinforcing rather than alleviating its inequality and segregation.

He talks about the importance of concentrating development near transit, but as we explained in the primary, in practice he is mainly saying he would limit new homes except near transit, and still limit them near transit as well, only perhaps slightly less.

Floreen is wrong on transportation

Montgomery County is a mostly suburban place, filled primarily with single-family detached houses in neighborhoods designed around the car. That’s true. And Floreen will not let you forget it, saying the county was “laid out in the 1960s,” that “we are not dense enough to be a totally transit-oriented community,” and “we don’t have the infrastructure to allow people to stay off the roads.”

This is, on its face, also true. Montgomery County could not stop having people driving tomorrow, and nobody is suggesting that. Nor, even, that most people who live in car-dependent areas would stop driving at any foreseeable time (at least, until computers can drive for them).

However, what the county can do is focus its future growth in walkable, transit-oriented places. Building a new highway creates demand for new homes and jobs that depend on using that highway; building homes and jobs near transit now means more people don’t need the highway.

But Floreen supports enormous public investment in roads. She favors the proposed M-83 highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg, which even current County Executive Ike Leggett now opposes because of its $350 million price tag. She supports the unnecessary and wasteful Montrose Parkway East.

On Governor Larry Hogan’s proposals to expand both the Beltway and I-270, Floreen initially told Bethesda Beat she was “thrilled to death,” but more recently expressed some doubts. In considering adding lanes to I-495, she noted “no one is going to take down Holy Cross Hospital” and that people along 270 have “legitimate concerns” about its expansion.

But there’s no doubt that Floreen is for more highways. One of the few people even more enthusiastic about paving over Montgomery County is her campaign manager, Rich Parsons, a long-time highway lobbyist and booster. That Floreen chose him to lead her campaign gave us great pause, and any influence he’d have on a Floreen administration can be nothing but damaging.

Floreen does support Bus Rapid Transit on Route 29 and I-270, with the interesting innovation of extending those lines to Columbia and Frederick, but she has resisted committing to existing plans for BRT on Rockville Pike, Veirs Mill Road, and other heavily traveled routes within the county.

She told us the county is “running a lot of empty buses” and framed her support for a small-bus pilot in Rockville to address some of these issues. Later in our interview, she called WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld “terrific,” but noted we “have to be more creative” in meeting the region’s transit needs.

On the whole, Floreen has argued the county puts too much emphasis on transit vs. roads, casting the lone dissenting vote against the county’s Transportation Priorities Letter on those grounds. But building housing without also adding transit is not sustainable for a county with plenty of traffic; the two have to be part of the same package.

Marc Elrich’s vision of transit is incomplete

Marc Elrich says he has been a leader on transit. He did champion a countywide BRT network. But he hasn’t successfully led the county to move beyond a pretty network of lines on a map.

While he favors reversible lanes on I-270, Elrich does not support most of the county’s bad road projects. In recent debates, he persuasively argued that Floreen’s (and Ficker’s) highways would merely dump more traffic on local roads and that we’d be better served by restricting parking around employment centers to encourage transit ridership. We’re happy to agree that he’d be better for transit than Floreen.

But Elrich’s transit vision isn’t an urbanist one. Editorial Board member Dan Reed, who penned the pro-Floreen side of our point-counterpoint, relayed a story:

In 2012 I went to Los Angeles and rode the then-new Orange Line BRT, and when I got back I was so excited to talk to Marc about it because he'd been pushing for it here. I noted that the service was great, but it was disappointing that there was very little development around stations like Reseda and Van Nuys, other than parking lots.

Marc replied,“Why do you need to develop around those stations?”

Reed tried to explain why it would be desirable to encourage more housing and other things around those BRT stations, but says Elrich insisted that there wasn’t any reason to.

It seems that Elrich sees better transit as simply a higher-capacity road replacement which still feeds suburban subdivisions. That doesn’t give us walkable places, or thriving retail nodes, and the economics don’t work. Transit enables an urban form, but Elrich doesn’t really want that urban form to grow around transit. His vision is closer to that of suburban parking lot commuter rail-style stations rather than transit-oriented villages.

The Montgomery County Council in 2016. Image by Montgomery County.

Who will the County Council temper, and work with, better?

In speaking to urbanist supporters of both Floreen and Elrich, a common refrain is that the County Council, which will have some excellent new members, will act as a check on their worst impulses.

Already, for instance, the council has repeatedly delayed Montrose Parkway East in favor of other spending priorities, over the efforts of County Executive Ike Leggett. The council also deprioritized the sprawl-inducing M-83 highway proposal. If Floreen prevails, we expect her to push both of these projects again, but we also are optimistic that the council would continue blocking them.

They won’t block everything. If she wins, there’s a good chance I-270 will be widened to add two reversible lanes, which she supports. However, Elrich supports this plan as well (as does Ficker), leaving no County Executive candidate who would fight against it.

Urbanist supporters of Elrich point out that Sector Plans do not go to the County Executive; they go from the Planning Board to the County Council. And the council appoints members of the Planning Board, including the chair who is soon up for reappointment. However, the county executive can veto such appointments, though with enough votes the council could override such a veto.

Elrich would have considerable influence over housing policy that’s not subject to council review. He would appoint heads of executive agencies which deal with housing and set policies, not for development but the administration of housing and permitting matters. He would appoint the Housing Opportunities Commission, which purchases, rents, builds, and funds affordable housing in the county.

We also worry Elrich would feud with the council much more openly than Floreen would, and we fear he'd seek to push wedge issues that divide the council and the people of Montgomery County. Floreen might of course chafe at council actions contrary to her wishes, but we believe she would move on and focus on getting things done.

This was not an easy decision

Nancy Floreen was not our first choice. We would prefer several of the other sitting county councilmembers as County Executive (and endorsed one of them in the primary). There may be no advocate in the county we disagree with more vehemently than Floreen’s campaign manager.

We have many friends and allies in progressive groups who are excited about Marc Elrich for his views on issues like workplace rights or pay for public employees, and his rhetorical emphasis on racial and income inequality. However, we believe that creating places for people to live throughout the county, including ones for people of low incomes, is also an important equity issue where Elrich is terrible.

Elrichism would deeply reinforce segregation in the county. Elrich himself counts residents of the most exclusive communities, for whom protecting that exclusivity is their top priority, as some of his staunchest supporters, and we hope allies concerned about equity will question this as well.

Elrich led the council on increasing inspections on older rental properties to prevent tragedies like the Flower Branch Apartments fire in Silver Spring in 2016. That and other issues have led tenant advocates in our community to support Elrich. We agree tenant protections are needed, but opposing tens of thousands of homes, including affordable homes, denies those tenants choices for where to live and the ability to find homes, and outweighs the benefit of laudable policies around rental housing.

We understand some environmental organizations are supporting Elrich as well, and we recognize that there are some areas of disagreement inside the environmental community. In the face of climate change, we think it is increasingly important for environmentalists to understand and prioritize urbanist thinking versus more traditional modes of opposing bad roads and “too much growth.” Elrich’s views are very compatible with the latter, but we don’t share that definition of environmentalism and don’t think his leadership would be the greener choice.

Floreen has always been willing to engage deeply with advocates in our community even when she completely disagrees. She was the first elected official to comment on Greater Greater Washington in its early days, for instance (and we disagreed!). When one contributor emailed the entire council years ago asking for comments on a topic, Floreen was the only member to respond, and in fact spent almost an hour discussing the issue.

We don’t see merit to the argument that Floreen votes could help elect Ficker. The number of Republicans in Montgomery County is so low, and in fact Floreen will pull from Independents who don’t have a particular aversion to Democrats but dislike one-party rule on principle. His chance of pulling in at least 34% of votes under any scenario, especially one with energized Elrich and Floreen bases and strong GOTV efforts, is extremely unlikely.

When making primary endorsements, we didn’t set any one issue as a litmus test, and endorsed some people who, like Floreen, favor some highways we don’t. In some primary races, we chose only to endorse champions who we could be enthusiastic about overall. Sometimes we didn’t endorse at all, and we seriously considered doing just that here.

But this race has especially high stakes for the future of Montgomery County, and after long deliberation, the Elections Committee reached the conclusion that we would not be serving readers well by sitting out this one. Therefore, we encourage Montgomery County voters to cast ballots for Nancy Floreen on November 6 or in early voting October 25 through November 1.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. All endorsements are decided by our volunteer Elections Committee with input from our board and other volunteer committees.

For further reading on this race see our earlier coverage: