Thursday, September 15, 2022

Montgomery County Executive, Civic Federation call on County Council to disapprove Thrive 2050 plan

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and the Montgomery County Civic Federation have both asked the County Council to disapprove the controversial Thrive 2050 growth plan. Elrich wrote in a memo to councilmembers that a new consultant report underscored his previous concern that there was insufficient outreach to residents of color, and of lower-income levels. He also noted that a survey touted by Thrive 2050 proponents used deceptive questions that referred to end goals of the plan, without disclosing the new zoning changes that would be implemented to achieve them.

Elrich advised the Council to put its political interests in passing Thrive 2050 before the November election aside, in favor of more outreach, and incorporation of more than 65 changes recommended by the consultant to prevent gentrification and displacement of residents of color and lower incomes. These proposed changes include Community Benefit Agreements, rent-to-own programs, and constructing more parks in areas that fit those demographics. Elrich said disapproving the current plan would also allow time for further public hearings.

A major complaint of Thrive 2050 detractors from the beginning has been the impression that the plan was rammed through by the County Planning Board while the general public was distracted by the pandemic. The most controversial aspect is that the plan would allow construction of multifamily housing in existing single-family home neighborhoods. This would drastically change the character of those neighborhoods, while the resulting attached housing units would be too expensive to help address the perceived lack of affordable housing in the county. 

Thousands of new housing units have come online countywide since 2014, but that surge in inventory has had no downward effect on prices. As volume increases, home prices and rents have only gone upward, creating skepticism that Thrive 2050's massive construction scheme will make housing affordable. In fact, based on the data of the last decade, it would likely only jack up prices further. If new townhomes sell for over $1 million in an industrial area of 20816, how much would a new larger duplex unit sell for in the same desirable zip code? Not less.

The resolution passed by the Civic Federation addressed many of the same concerns Elrich raised, as well as environmental sustainability and the need for broad community support for master plans. Thrive 2050 supporters have dismissed that idea, arguing that despite their six-and-seven figure investments in a SFH-neighborhood environment, County home buyers should have no say or leverage in the zoning or development of any property besides their own. 

New chapters should be added on each of the topics that the consulting team determined were shortchanged in the current draft, the Federation advised, including environmental, racial equity and social justice issues. A new public hearing should be held on each of those new chapters, its resolution added. The Federation also opposes universal upzoning and by-right zoning changes implemented through the controversial Zoning Text Amendment process, and notes that the consultant report suggests that a legitimate process to address the areas of concern it identified would take at least one year.

Other concerns that have been expressed throughout the Thrive 2050 process have included school overcrowding, loss of green space and tree canopy, inadequate parking spaces for the higher neighborhood densities proposed, and whether the existing infrastructure such as water and sewer can handle such a population increase in existing neighborhoods. 

The Council currently has planned to vote on the Thrive 2050 plan by October 25.

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