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Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and County Council Member-at-Large Nancy Floreen presented an overview of how and why our County government tries to maintain and improve its renowned high quality of life. Main takeaway: It's complicated!
At the Silver Spring Civic Center on Thursday evening, 26 October, Casey Anderson showed a series of slides illustrating the demographics that affect development decisions. (view slides here) Our population-now at 1 million- continues to grow, although more slowly than in the past; the current unemployment rate of 3 1/2% indicates the recovery in job growth after the decline in 2008-09. Montgomery County is still among the nation's top 20 most affluent counties (but locally, Loudon, Howard, and Fairfax are ahead), partly due to the high levels of education of our residents: fully one-third of adults over 25 have advanced degrees. Nevertheless, an estimated one-quarter of households live on less than $50,000 a year, and the County is undeniably segregated by income and education. Insufficient affordable housing is an ongoing problem. Over the last 20 years, construction of new residential units has averaged 3,500 annually, but we have still not recovered from the significant decline following the economic collapse almost 10 years ago. Demand continues to outstrip supply.
Anderson emphasized that for the past 40+ years Montgomery County has successfully sought to increase and preserve large portions of the County as "green" through the Agriculture Preserve and increasing forest cover, by concentrating development in transit corridors and inner urban areas. The aim has been to allow building new or redeveloped areas that are compact, transit-oriented, mixed-use, and walkable in order to preserve our traditional single-family neighborhoods.
Nancy Floreen, who is winding up four terms on the county council, recounted the story of how she got involved in public activism. In 1982, when she discovered that a building near where she then lived in Silver Spring was to be demolished and replaced by a high-rise, she successfully fought the plan, which eventually led to serving eight years on the Planning Board. This is where she learned how complex and intertwined the issues are which go into planning and development.
"We live right next to the center of the western world," she said in other words, a highly desirable place to be, so the housing supply is crucial, and our older family neighborhoods are "sacrosanct." Growing the tax base is critical to maintaining services, especially our prized education system. And developers need to make money. Although high-density zoning has been in place for decades, and Montgomery County has required developers to set aside 12 1/2% of any development as Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDU), Floreen questions whether we are really "targeting the most needy." A related question is school choice"' - the "third rail" in Montgomery County - but that will be an issue for the next County Council to wrestle with.
This was the first of three related programs to be presented by the WDC Education Committee, co-chaired by Brenda Wolff and Diana Conway, with the aim of providing context for voters before local elections next year. The second program will focus on the economy, business, and jobs, and the third on issues related to women's employment, such as child care, transit, and pay.