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Montgomery County Aims To Spur New Development With First Land Use Plan Overhaul Since The '60s

Montgomery County is rewriting its overarching land use plan for the first time since 1964, and the county's planning staff expects it to shape the wealthy suburban D.C. enclave's development for decades to come.

New development rising in Silver Spring, seen from the Metro station platform.

The plan, called Thrive Montgomery 2050, is currently working its way through the county council, and county officials say they expect it will achieve final passage before the end of the year.

As a General Plan, the document lays out a big-picture vision for the county's development and sets priorities that will serve as a precedent for future policy decisions that impact development on a more detailed level, such as neighborhood master plans, zoning code changes and housing legislation. 

The plan's goals include adding more walkable, mixed-use development, especially in the less developed eastern part of the county, facilitating more residential supply growth by allowing more types of housing — including adjusting single-family zoning — and helping attract more companies to create jobs and spur economic growth in the county. 

Montgomery County has fallen behind other parts of the region in job growth and business formation, and county officials say smart land use planning can help address that problem while spurring investment in underserved areas and encouraging more housing development. 

"Compact, mixed-use development with a bunch of different things going on in the same place at the same time is something that makes a place more appealing and more attractive, and that's also an important part of creating a quality place that will draw employers," Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson said in an interview. 

The Planning Board spent two years working on the new plan, Anderson said, talking to thousands of constituents before submitting it to the council in April. He said he hopes the council will pass it before the end of the year. The plan only needs to pass through the council, and it doesn't require the county executive's approval. 

Council Member Hans Riemer, chair of the Planning Housing & Economic Development Committee, said his committee began working on the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan in June after the council passed the budget for this fiscal year, and he said he "definitely" thinks the plan will pass before 2022.

Riemer said the council will make some changes, but he supports the main ideas of the plan, including spurring growth in the east county and creating more flexibility for housing development.

"This plan reflects the planning vision that I ran for council to advance," Riemer said. "It's very consistent with the kinds of policy decisions the council has been making, and I think it allows the county to go deeper on some of those decisions over time."

The county has been guided by a General Plan called Wedges and Corridors since its 1964 passage. Anderson and Riemer both said it has remained in place for this long because it has been largely successful, helping spur growth in areas like Downtown Bethesda, the I-270 corridor and Silver Spring, but they said the time for a new plan has come.

Françoise Carrier, a land use attorney with Bregman Berbert Schwartz & Gilday who served as Montgomery County Planning Board chair from 2010 to 2014, also said the plan has worked well, but she thinks it is in need of an update. She said the Planning Board during her term was focused on a rewrite of the zoning code, and crafting a new General Plan is a major undertaking. 

"It took a long time to get to it because, for one thing, the county's land use process works pretty well and was able to work around the absence of an up-to-date General Plan," Carrier said. "It's a really large project. It took having the right team in place and the political will to make it happen."

Steering Development To East Montgomery County

The Glenmont Metro station in east Montgomery County has little development around it.

East Montgomery County, including areas like Wheaton, Glenmont, White Oak and the Georgia Avenue and Route 29 corridors, hasn't benefited from the same level of investment as the western part of the county. 

The need to spur economic growth in the east county is one of the primary reasons county leaders decided that a rewrite of the plan was needed now, Riemer said. 

"A couple of the primary tenets of the existing plan are that there isn't really a lot of growth desired in the east county, and we need to change that because the east county has been left behind by that vision," Riemer said. 

The plan aims to concentrate growth in the east county in a series of mixed-use centers. Some of them would be around Metro stations such as Wheaton and Glenmont, while others would be built away from transit in areas like White Oak, where the Food and Drug Administration has its main campus, and Burtonsville in the northeast corner of the county. 

Anderson said transit isn't always necessary to create mixed-use development hubs, pointing to Foulger-Pratt's Park Potomac development in the western part of the county as an example. He said while more transit service is ideal, one main benefit of transit stations is that they create a gravitational pull for dense development. 

"It's not just mobility but the fact that if you have a transit station it tends to organize and focus growth in a concentrated way with a mix of uses to make places more energized, appealing and economically productive," he said. "It's about focusing growth in that way with or without transit to create the kinds of places people want to be. That's a cornerstone of our economic development strategy."

Dan Reed, an urban planner who writes the Just Up The Pike blog about eastern Montgomery County and contributes to Greater Greater Washington, said he thinks the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan will help direct investment to new areas in the east county. 

"It will really help bring attention to areas not on top of Metro," Reed said. "I'm looking forward to seeing investment in places like White Oak, Burtonsville and along the Georgia Avenue corridor north of Glenmont, places that today are in my opinion pretty attractive places to live, but lack access to things like jobs and shopping because of policies that have directed investment away."

Reed said the plan also takes new steps toward addressing racial inequalities in the county. 

"This is probably the first document, if not one of the first, from the Planning Department that acknowledges the county's role in segregation and in racial inequality in the county," Reed said. "That's an important first step to doing something about it."

Montgomery County's racial and economic divide was highlighted in a January 2019 report from the Planning Department. It showed that as of 2016, all of the Black-majority census tracts and most of the Hispanic-majority tracts were on the eastern side of the county. It also showed that the western side of the county had several censuses with annual household incomes averaging over $250K while most census tracts on the eastern side averaged below $125K. 

A map from the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan that illustrates potential areas and corridors where growth could be concentrated.

In order to push developers to invest in less-established submarkets in the eastern part of the county, land use attorney Stacy Plotkin Silber said the county needs to make the entitlement process less costly and time-consuming. Silber, a principal at Lerch, Early & Brewer, said the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan could help do that as long as the county implements its vision in later policies. 

"One part that's new that Thrive is encouraging is opening the county to allow additional development along these corridors where it's currently not that easy to do it," Silber said. "If there's buy-in to the vision to encourage more development in those areas, there will need to be policies in place to make it happen."

Coalition for Smarter Growth Maryland Advocacy Manager Jane Lyons said she supports the plan and its vision for spurring development in the east county. She said this could help bring investment to underserved communities and bridge the county's economic and racial divide. 

Lyons said she hopes to see the county focus on improving the roads and transportation infrastructure in the east county, where the fast-moving main corridors are difficult for pedestrians to navigate. 

"We see throughout Montgomery County, especially on the east side like University Boulevard, New Hampshire Avenue and Georgia Avenue, these are some of the worst roads for pedestrians and cyclists in all of Montgomery County," Lyons said. "Focusing redevelopment along those corridors along with others will allow for transportation facilities to be improved, and that will make it a more desirable place to live and work."

Adding More Housing 

Montgomery County has joined its regional neighbors in calling for more housing development to address the affordability crisis, and the new land use plan could help support that residential growth. 

The county council unanimously approved a resolution in November 2019 to support the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government's Housing Targets, which call for 41,000 new units in Montgomery County by 2030. That would be 10,000 additional units beyond what was previously projected for the county.

County leaders see the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan as a key first step to achieving those goals, and other policies are in the works that could help implement the plan's principles. 

Around one-third of the county's land area is zoned exclusively for single-family housing, Anderson said. The Thrive plan aims to create more flexibility in some of those areas to build a wider range of housing types including duplexes, triplexes and two-over-two condos.

"In the right circumstances, not everywhere, other types of housing can be introduced into single-family zoned property," Carrier said. "That's a big change."

Montgomery County Council Member Hans Riemer and Chesapeake Public Strategies' Ellen Coren at Bisnow's Future of Bethesda and Beyond event.

By establishing the priority of building more housing and allowing a wider range of housing types, the Thrive plan will make it easier for the Planning Board to recommend more residential density when creating master plans for specific areas, Riemer said. He pointed to two examples of master plans passed in recent years, for the Veirs Mill and Forest Glen areas, where he had called for more housing, but the Planning Board felt it didn't fit within the vision of the 1964 plan. 

"It will give the Planning Board more flexibility to consider different options as they move forward," Riemer said. "I think they've felt constrained in what they can consider."

The plan also recommends the county consider new approaches to financing housing development, including Tax Increment Financing packages. Anderson said the county had resisted these methods in the past because it didn't see a reason to subsidize market-rate housing, but the new plan makes the case that is in the public's best interest. 

"We have to get creative and aggressive about the way we make the economics of housing production work," Anderson said. 

Lyons said she is glad the plan calls for more housing production, but she would like to see it place a greater emphasis on providing housing for people at the lowest income levels. 

"We think that it could think even more boldly on how to provide housing for people with the lowest incomes," Lyons said. "The earlier drafts talked about housing as a human right, and we would like to see housing talked about that way so we're making sure that everybody in Montgomery County is housed and we're ending homelessness."

The county council is considering multiple legislative approaches to allow more housing that could be passed along with the Thrive plan to help implement its vision.

One initiative, Attainable Housing Strategies, seeks to build more "missing middle" housing by allowing small multifamily properties in a series of residential areas. A similar bill, introduced by Council Member Will Jawando, would allow duplexes, townhouses and small apartment buildings in certain residential areas near Metro stations. 

Attracting More Businesses

Montgomery County has lagged behind Northern Virginia and D.C. in job growth, and while land use planning alone can't turn the county's economic fortunes around, county leaders say the goals established in the Thrive plan could help. 

The Marriott International headquarters in Downtown Bethesda.

The number of jobs in Montgomery County grew by 5% from 2004 to 2019, while 20 similarly sized counties around the country averaged 21% employment growth, according to a blog post from Anderson.

Montgomery County experienced the slowest rate of business formation in the D.C. region from 2010 to 2019, according to the blog post, and it has failed to land some of the high-profile corporate relocations that Arlington and Fairfax counties have benefited from. 

Riemer, who called the county's lack of job growth a "crisis" at a 2019 Bisnow event, said the Thrive plan could help attract employers by creating more walkable places with retail amenities. Many companies have relocated from traditional suburban office to walkable urban areas, such as Marriott International shifting its headquarters from the Rock Spring Business Park near I-270 to Downtown Bethesda. 

"It is embracing an aggressive outlook on change, and we believe it is aligned with where the private sector generally wants to go," Riemer said. "It supports the kind of development that has been proven successful."

Anderson said that in addition to seeking walkable mixed-use places with transit accessibility, companies also want to locate where their employees can find the type of housing that meets their needs. 

"Housing is really important to economic development," Anderson said. "Most people talk about housing as a social issue, it's often overlooked that when you have housing that's so expensive, that draws away employees and makes it harder to attract employers."