Thursday, May 22, 2008

TO PLAN - or not to plan?

By Sharon Dooley. Ms Dooley is the legislative Director of Upcounty Action and is looking closely at the selection process here.

The new line up of planning board interviewees shows a diversity of ideas, sexes, races and planning orientations. The council has whittled the original list of 29 – down to a round dozen. One (Wendell Holloway) has already withdrawn his name, but the others wait their turn for public and -council - scrutiny. It appears that each applicant has been an active participant in the concerns of this county for many years; in this we are fortunate.

The county, in my opinion, has an opportunity to take a giant step into an innovative future if it takes the bold leap forward that some of these applicants might provide. Few are professional planners, many are citizen activists, and more than a few are lawyers. Five are women, only two are Republicans (the board make up must include one Republican and one non Republican to balance the vacancies for the commissioners by party). I think, although I am not absolutely positive - as I could not find photos of each applicant, that three are African Americans (the soon to be open seat is currently held by an African American – Alistair Bryant). There appear to be neither Hispanic nor, Asian contenders for these positions.

Fewer members of this group are tied tightly to developers, few are known as environmentalists, one has been with the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), and a others have worked for local organizations, such as the WSSC, the PG Parks and Planning Board and Montgomery County Planning Board and the Smart Growth concept. Another is known as a developer, but he is linked with the new urbanism concept, which is conserving of urban areas, encouraging of the streetscape model and green spaces.

I think that there are great opportunities to find commissioners that will step up to the plate here and be ready to start without a steep learning curve. That should be one of the criteria, I think. We have for too long only looked at re-cycling residents from one agency to another in this county, and I am reluctant to advocate this narrowing of our scope. In a county of almost one million residents, we should look for diversity of ideas as well as gender and race.

I encourage the council to ask the tough questions about the future as they proceed with these interviews:
· What is their vision for the 21st Century in the county?
· What will they sacrifice to save our forests and agricultural reserve?
· How much density is tolerable; how much gridlock can we bear before insanity sets in?
· When will we create a real plan for affordable housing that offers more than a few hundred options each year? (We are currently more than ten years in arrears from previous schemes.)
· When will we seriously look at transit and create a realistic plan that funds it instead of more roads?
· What are their ideas for keeping clean air, increasing the green buildings in the county and reducing our dependence on traditional fuel sources in buildings here?
· When will the council ask more of the planners? Master plans are a way of life here – how can they be kept from becoming routine rote reviews that are retooled every twenty years or so? Hopefully, this new commission will deep six the mini-masters that were proposed as a way to circumvent the current schedules.
· When will the planning board step up itself to direct staff to create traffic studies and capacity measures that adequately address these issues using national norms and standards?

For quite a while Montgomery county planners have rested on their laurels using the standards that they set in place a generation ago. Quite properly, the county received many honors for these innovative practices; but in my opinion we have stagnated, while other parts of the country have taken our initial ideas and brought them to new levels and tried pilots with citizen input, development, housing and transit that we are not even considering. The cities of Portland and Minneapolis are among the new leaders in urban development. We have an opportunity to send a strong signal by starting down new paths and opening new doors – let’s take them and move toward real innovation and increased integrity in our planning process by selecting new commissioners who have a vision for tomorrow and for the tomorrows future generations can enjoy.