- The Washington Times - Friday, December 11, 2009

Critics of a master plan that would guide development in Montgomery County’s vast Gaithersburg West say a proposal by the Montgomery County Planning Board is misapplying “smart growth” language to garner support.

“All the marketing rhetoric has made it look like one thing, but if you look closely, it is not at all what they’re saying it is,” said Donna Baron, founder and coordinator of the Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition.

The master plan, introduced by the planning board in 2007, seeks to create a “21st-century blueprint” for an area that covers 4,360 acres at the heart of the Interstate 270 corridor.

At the heart of the plan is the creation of a 900-acre Life Sciences Center for the Shady Grove area that some have dubbed “Science City.” Up to 60,000 new jobs are projected under the current plan. The jobs would be supported by a proposed light-rail line called the Corridor Cities Transitway, which would run from Gaithersburg northwest to Clarksburg and have three transit stations.

The Montgomery County Council decided last month to delay a vote on the Gaithersburg West Master Plan until early next year. That hasn’t stopped the community from weighing in on what has become a divisive issue.

The planning board said the development relies on smart-growth principles of a live/work, transit-oriented community, which would transform the Life Sciences Center over the next 25 to 35 years “into a vibrant place served by transit and enhanced by activating uses, open spaces and amenities.”

“I think all the forces that are at work are urging that we try to develop a higher level of mixed use around transit stations, and that is what we have done at Gaithersburg West,” planning board Chairman Royce Hanson said.

But Ms. Baron said the smart growth would include walkable streets to transit centers. She refers to the area’s neighborhood roads as a “bowl of spaghetti,” with curving streets and multiple cul de sacs.

“This area is now and will forever be suburban because there will never be a grid of streets that would allow access to transit, even if a rapid bus or train runs through it,” Ms. Baron said.

“Residents cannot get out of their subdivisions without their cars, so applying urban traffic standards to our area is a contrived way of adding additional traffic without a defensible reason,” she said.

Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit, who has testified against the plan, said that the committee might support the light-rail line, but that “putting a transit line someplace doesn’t make it smart growth by itself.”

Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said the underlying principle of smart growth is to put “the right land use in the right place in concert with the holding capacity of the land.”

“I don’t think the details are all there yet, but they don’t have to be,” he said. “It’s a great plan. I think they’ve got to work out some of these hard edges and some of the issues that people have concerns about, and they need to be responded to,” Mr. Fuller said.

But Ethan Goffman, chairman of the transportation committee of the Montgomery County Sierra Club, said that if new workers live outside of the development, they will have not have access to mass transit and will be restricted to using cars in an already congested traffic area.

“The whole project is bound to fail in the long run. They’ll have trouble pulling in business if people have so much trouble getting there,” Mr. Goffman said.

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