Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sleeping Giant Stays in Bed

Last month, we ran a four-part series on the policy and political implications of the Gaithersburg West Master Plan. We asked whether the issue was a “sleeping giant” and speculated about its impact on the 2010 at-large County Council race. The recent approval of a compromise master plan on an 8-1 vote changes things considerably.

The final weeks leading to the vote were pressure-packed. The City Councils of Rockville and Gaithersburg came out against the plan and opponents threatened dire consequences if it was passed. But supporters picked up their game and flooded the council with emails in the last days before the vote. Looming over everything was the budget, which threatened to push the issue to the back burner.

Just before the vote, six Council Members broadly favored the provisions in the plan: at-large members Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Duchy Trachtenberg and district Council Members Mike Knapp (who is the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee Chair), Valerie Ervin and Nancy Navarro. They could have jammed it through over the objections of the remaining three. But that risked creating an election issue and damaging the council’s ability to work together on the budget. So Knapp began exploring ways to pick up more votes – and most critically, earning the support of Phil Andrews, who represented the area. Could the six supporters move enough to get Andrews on board?

One new piece of information that made a difference was a council staff memo on potential build-out under the plan. The original plan allowed 20 million square feet of commercial space provided that all of the supporting infrastructure (including the Corridor Cities Transitway) was built. County Executive Ike Leggett proposed allowing 18 million square feet and several Council Members shared that view. But developers seldom max out every square foot on their properties because of financing constraints, problems with securing tenants and issues with architecture and engineering. The staff found that if the limit was set at 20 million square feet, developers were likely to actually build only 14.7-16.2 million square feet. The existing master plan from 1990 allowed 13 million square feet with no staging tied to infrastructure. This information gave the council flexibility to adjust the density since neither 18 million nor 20 million square feet would have actually been built under any circumstance. So the ultimate compromise provided for 17.5 million square feet plus concessions on allowable congestion and improved staging – just enough to get Andrews and Roger Berliner to come on board. Only Marc Elrich refused to go along.

Andrews did what all good legislators do. He staked out his position, accumulated some leverage, won some concessions, struck a deal and defended it. Knapp did what all good committee chairs do. He provided lots of opportunities for input, negotiated patiently, and built a consensus to win as many votes as possible. And Council President Nancy Floreen did what all good presiding officers do: clear out one contentious issue before moving on to an even more contentious issue (that being the budget). For all the criticism of its dysfunction, here is an instance when the County Council worked well together and arrived at a fair solution.

OK, maybe we should not overdo it. Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg put out a press release claiming credit for the deal hours after the vote even though she had little role in working it out. Welcome to election season, folks.

Given the lopsided vote and the support of Phil Andrews, it’s hard to see where the opponents go from here. The plan is done. It is not going to be repealed or modified in any major way. No amount of electoral activism will change that. Marc Elrich will pick up some votes in the Gaithersburg precincts and perhaps win a few of them. But because the County Council was able to find a compromise, the sleeping giant rubbed his eyes, yawned, rolled over and went back to bed – probably through the election.