Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rollin Stanley: Problem and Potential, Part Two

Rollin Stanley, Montgomery County’s star planning director, favors channeling growth to walkable downtowns, encouraging mixed-use development with significant density and even using congestion to force people onto transit. Furthermore, he is not a patient man when pursuing his goals. Both his philosophy and his tactics are drawing resistance.

Few county residents will agree with Stanley’s statement that “congestion is a good thing.” Voters here will never accept an approach that gives up on congestion relief. Only seven years ago, a County Council slate called “End Gridlock” won a majority by promising to build the ICC and other transportation improvements. There are a variety of proposals for easing congestion circulating in the county, including the Purple Line and the CCT, widening I-270 and Marc Elrich’s BRT system proposal. Advocates of some of these projects may disagree with each other, but all of them are marketed to some extent as congestion relief. No serious county politician will ever echo Stanley’s position in public.

But Stanley’s bigger problem is that he shows no respect for the county’s system of dealing with development and growth. For decades, the county’s politics have revolved around a tension between prosperity and quality of life. Prosperity furthers economic well-being, but it also creates traffic, density and change. Quality of life depends in part on prosperity, but it erodes when the externalities of excessive growth gridlock roads and crowd schools. Small battles between developers and neighbors over individual projects have fueled opposing political ideologies, creating a swinging pendulum over many election cycles.

For all the debate over growth, the county has kept a lid on all-out civil war by fashioning a system to balance competing interests at the project level and the macro level (especially on growth policy). That system involves abundant input from all sides, intense analysis of issues by planning staff and hearing examiners, avoidance of any appearance of impropriety and, above all, the impartial enforcement of lots and lots of rules. Stanley, a smart man in a hurry, cares nothing about any of this.

Our sources are quick to elaborate. One spy says, “He’s a bull in a china shop. He has a get it done attitude (a good thing) and little patience for rules, regulations and process that get in his way (not such a good thing in this county). He has some great ideas but an even greater ego.” Another informant complains, “Most arrogant man on the planet. Has pulled projects from staff when they wouldn’t write it his way, and wrote reports himself. Told staffers not to attend meetings so they couldn’t be questioned, hates citizen groups and constructed Master Plan committees to minimize citizen input and maximize developer input. Convenes citizen groups to use them as paper dressing, then ignores their input… Views residents as obstacles to the planners’ efforts to build the perfect world which will resolve all our ills.”

Still another observer says, “Attitude is everything and Rollin’s sucks. If he weren’t condescending and dismissive, including to elected officials and his staff, he could probably get stuff done. Seriously, personality and relationships is 95% of success, and he just doesn’t care.” And one more informant claims that Stanley gets involved in the aesthetic details of projects, an activity that goes far beyond the bounds of his job. “He’s like a developer with no money and he imposes his personal preferences on what you should build.” This source claims that Stanley will go so far as to draw building sketches on napkins to instruct developers on what they should do. “They don’t know their roles. They don’t follow the rules and they don’t stay within the boundaries of their roles.”

And one of the county’s most knowledgeable growth experts said this:

My personal view is that he’s an arrogant egotist and apparently, based on what the Post and Examiner reported, he thinks he’s above the rules. Unfortunately, if he considers himself and his staff above the rules established for internal M-NCPPC audit investigations, then I hold out little hope that he will aid in transitioning the Planning Department and Board toward what residents hoped would be a more transparent and citizen-inclusive process. And [Planning Board Chairman Royce] Hanson appears to be shielding Stanley, which is probably encouraging his bad behavior.
Not all our sources are so hard on Stanley. One says he is “Extremely sharp and forward thinking . Probably frustrated with the lack of political will to adopt new ideas and think as creatively as he does.” Another says:

I think he is very talented and can provide some really good ideas. Royce is kind of running interference for him which is hurting him. It doesn’t allow him to hear what people are saying, he’s not getting a good feel for the community, and he’s not learning how to deal with all of the different factions in the County. As a result, I don’t think he is getting as rooted in the community as he needs to be to be successful. I also think this makes him a little tone deaf to issues. All solvable issues which is the good thing.
Stanley’s methods were on full display during the Bethesda Metro Center 4 controversy last year. A developer wanted to build a new 16-story office tower on top of the Bethesda Metro Station in close proximity to two other buildings. The problem with the proposal was that the floor area ratio for the tract contained in the area’s Master Plan did not permit enough density to allow the project to go forward. Stanley favored the project anyway, criticized its opponents in public and reversed a recommendation by his staff to oppose it. The problem was that Stanley advocated changing how floor area ratio is calculated to get this one project through, a sweeping alteration that would have allowed more density on sprawl projects everywhere else in the county. The Planning Board unanimously denied approval.

These sorts of activities are generating considerable pushback in both the development and civic communities. They may also be creating tensions within the planning staff, who are the likely sources for Post reporter Miranda Spivack’s long series of negative articles about Stanley’s credit card issues. Ethical questions can hurt in process-obsessed Montgomery County.

It’s not too late for Rollin Stanley to turn around his fortunes and nudge the county towards its smart growth future. Here are a few things he should do.

1. Don’t get too involved in individual projects. It’s beneath the role of the planning director. Leave the little stuff to the staff. It’s their job to deal with it.

2. Focus on a few big priorities. How about redeveloping Wheaton, updating the other central business district master plans and laying out a framework for building a truly countywide transit system?

3. Go out and listen. Stanley is known to be a great speaker, but the county is full of speakers who are tired of hearing each other talk. The people who have lived and operated businesses in the county know more about our transportation and growth challenges than any planner with less than three years residency. And who knows? Some of them may be able to show Stanley a good idea or two he has yet to see in his travels.

4. Settle down and build relationships. This is the most important skill for a politician, and it is also extremely important for an administrator. This means engaging in give-and-take, admitting when you’re wrong and occasionally cutting your losses for the benefit of better relations down the road.

If Stanley can do these things, he will realize his potential and the county will be better off. If not, he won’t last. We’ll probably know which way this is going by the summer of 2011, a year after Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson’s successor takes office and determines whether Stanley should stay or go.