Sunday, May 25, 2008

Montgomery County Planning Department Announces Cuts

For those who doubt that the County Council mandated actual cuts in its recently passed budget, the Montgomery County Planning Department is providing a sobering rebuttal. In a recent press release that we are reproducing below, Planning detailed the activities it will have to scale back to accommodate a 3% cut in its budget.

The Planning Department's work is vital for shaping the future of the county. They have an excellent, professional staff that struggles to keep up with the work load generated by servicing a county of nearly a million residents. If this year's cuts are followed by more in the future, their ability to update master plans, recommend traffic mitigation measures and assess the impacts of new developments will be severely impaired.

May 23, 2008

With Fewer Funds in 09, Montgomery County Planning Department Will Cut Traffic Relief Studies, Environmental Protection Analyses, Other Programs

SILVER SPRING, MD –The fiscal year 2009 budget approved yesterday by the Montgomery County Council includes $18.9 million for the Montgomery Planning Department, approximately a 3 percent cut from the previous year when factoring in mandatory spending increases.

Facing fewer funds, the Planning Board during budget discussions with the County Council identified services and programs that will be cut starting July 1.

On that list is the county’s oldest master plan – Westbard, on the western edge of the growing Bethesda area – that planners had targeted for an update. Master plans help guide development, set zoning, establish transportation improvements, lay out pedestrian routes and establish environmental protection measures. The Westbard community, surrounding River Road and Little Falls Parkway, will have to wait at least a year.

Another plan to be delayed is Battery Lane, a small neighborhood on Bethesda’s northern edge, where density, the expansion of the National Naval Medical Center and affordable housing are particularly important. The Council had asked the department to address those issues in a sector plan.

Last fall, the Council approved the 2007 Growth Policy, a biannual law that helps match transportation, schools and other public services to new development. At that time, the Council mandated aggressive new requirements for developers to mitigate traffic impacts in a number of innovative ways, including mass transit. That requires planners to even more carefully analyze every development plan for congestion relief strategies. With the funding cut, planners will not be able to fully carry out the Council’s intent, which they had hoped to achieve with additional transportation staff. Instead, for example, transportation planners might recommend that a developer fund construction of a new turning lane to alleviate traffic concerns posed by new growth rather than recommending more complex, long-term solutions like mass transit. In addition, planners will not be able to conduct much-needed analyses of countywide parking needs and traffic congestion.

Environmental protection initiatives also will be delayed or abandoned. A state-required plan to analyze the county’s long-term water supply and quality will be delayed by at least a year, while a proposal to study the county’s energy needs to recommend strategies to reduce demand and generate energy will be scrapped.

County residents used to visiting the department’s public information counter to learn about zoning, development plans and community master plans may find the counter closed. Planners expect to limit service hours given dwindling staff.

The fiscal shortfall mostly affects personnel, which makes up 90 percent of the Planning Department’s budget. The funding reduction forces the department to reduce staff. Unable to fund positions, the department will freeze vacancies resulting from retirements and resignations in hopes of shrinking the workforce and avoiding layoffs. In addition, for the first time in many years, the department will not offer paid summer internships to college students.