“What are we trying to accomplish?” asked Park and Planning Commissioner Wendy Perdue.
The commission raised more questions than it answered at its first work session on the county’s Annual Growth Policy (AGP). The Annual Growth Policy governs the implementation of the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, meant to allow new development only where roads and schools can handle the growth.
By measuring the number of students in the schools and the numbers of cars on the roads, the AGP can be used to place areas of the county in a development moratorium. The policy is revised in odd-numbered years, and in this year’s revision draft, there are several options which could halt development in Potomac because of overcrowded schools.
Some Potomac residents have expressed disillusionment with the policy, which has allowed hundreds of houses to be built within the boundaries of Potomac Elementary, even though the school has more than 100 more students than it was built to house.
The policy will first be developed by the planning commission and then presented to the County Council for final revisions and adoption this fall. Proposed scenarios range from those which would result in essentially unchecked development to declaring a moratorium across the majority of the county and varying degrees in between.
At the commission’s first formal work session on the AGP on May 22, planning commissioners took a step back from the presented draft prepared by planning staff. Each of the commissioners posed philosophical questions about the nature of development in Montgomery County.
Perdue took the lead in raising the basic but complex issues.
“How does growth help with the general safety and welfare? What does growth cost?” she asked. “Why not shut the door now? What would be the impact of saying we’re in moratorium?”
Commissioner Meredith Wellington pointed out that growth versus moratorium is more than just a question of allowing houses to built. “The commission may have to look more at quality of life,” she said.
Wellington pointed to the results of the last election as evidence that county residents no longer find the traffic situation acceptable. Perdue pointed out that school overcrowding is another problem which residents want solved.
However, commissioners wondered if the Annual Growth Policy could really solve those problems.
“Does regulating development help with the congestion problem? Does regulating development affect the school capacity?” said Wellington.
The idea of halting new development, while discussed in the hypothetical, was not seriously considered by the commission.
“I just could not posit no growth. Change is a part of life,” said Wellington.
Commission Chair Derick Berlage discussed the impact of the county’s master plans, each of which contains guidelines for what type of development can be built in which areas.
“One fact we need not to ignore is the master plans,” Berlage said. “All you really should be talking about is how quickly you implement those master plans.”
The commission began a discussion of possible consequences of stopping all development. Berlage noted that the cost of housing would climb even faster. This is based on the assumption that demand would remain constant while supply would remain static.
If the housing prices continued to go up, said commissioner John Robinson, the labor force would be forced to move away. By moving the demand for housing someplace, “the school deficit would be exported,” Robinson said.
Lack of affordable housing could worsen road congestion by forcing people to drive further.
Commissioners also debated possible ways of measuring capacity in the schools and on the roads. Perdue wanted to be sure that the model adopted by the planning commission accurately reflects residents’ real-life experiences.
“Let’s not come up with a test that purports to make things adequate. What is the true experience?” she said.
The commission asked staff to develop some hard data on the literal cost of growth, calculating the dollar amount needed to sustain a new development.
“For every house, X goes into the CIP,” Perdue said, referring to the school system’s Capital Improvement Program. The CIP budget determines how many schools are built or renovated.
Additional work sessions are also scheduled for June 5 and 12. Berlage summed up what he thinks the planning board ultimately must accomplish before handing the AGP over to the county council.
“Boy, have you got a problem, and we’re here to tell you what part of it we can help you to solve.”