Sunday, August 20, 2006

Let's Talk About Growth

Originally posted at MocoPolitics

While the Silverman and Leggett goofballs throw sand at each other on the playground, let's us slightly more grown-up folks talk about the big issue in Montgomery County -- growth.

Opinions in the County run the gamut, from the "all growth is good" mantra of the Chamber of Commerce types to the "no more growth" view held in some areas of Takoma Park. While I tend more to the latter than the former, I am also a realist. "Growth" in and of itself is not bad -- if we never had growth, Montgomery County would still be predominantly farmland and a few towns dominated by white men whose families had lived here for hundreds of years. The development of a diverse, multicultural population that is both urban and rural, white and black, Anglo and Hispanic, not to mention Asian and everything else under the sun, is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Where "growth" goes bad, in my opinion, is when (1) it becomes an end in itself, to make a small number of people a lot of money, (2) it pushes low and moderate income people out of their communities, and (3) it outstrips the infrastructure and resources necessary to support it. I believe that all three of these "bad growth" things are happening in Montgomery County, and I think that the bad trend has worsened since the End Gridlock debacle in 2002. We need, nay, we must, reverse course and put the brakes on growth while we attempt to have a serious conversation not just about whether to have growth (I think we can and we must), but about what kind of growth we want to have and how we are going to support it and sustain it in a manner that allows the greatest possible number of our residents to partake of the benefits, all while finding the resources to build the schools and the roads and the libraries and the sewers and the rest of the infrastructure to support that growth.

Right now, the entire process, from top to bottom, is rotten to the core. Clarksburg is just one example, but the whole process stinks worse than a pig farm. Developer money and influence is rampant. The 2002 debacle was a direct result of the influx of millions of dollars of corporate money that overwhelmed a deeply divided electorate and tilted the playing field. There is no way that the anti-growth folks can compete with the dollars that the developers and their business allies can put in play in an election year, and it remains to be seen whether 2002 will be repeated in 2006.

That's why it's absolutely critical, in my view, to elect a County Council that will serve less as a rubber stamp for pro-development forces and more as a voice for the citizens. Sure, there is a place at the table for reasonable, moderate pro-development voices, but there is a vast difference between having a place at the table and owning the damn thing. Over the past four years, there has been little if any real debate about growth (it being assumed that 2002 decided that) and the end result was Clarksburg and the Yeshiva revelations.

I don't know what's going to happen this year (early signs are encouraging, but they were in 2002 as well before the tidal wave of corporate dollars kicked in), but I do think there are some systematic changes that need to happen at both the County and State levels. First and foremost, I believe passionately that campaign finance reform is essential. Corporate contributions should be banned -- period. As an initial interim step, disclosure of corporate affiliations ought to be required of any contribution, corporate or individual. A public financing bill passed the House of Delegates comfortably last session, and Senator Mike Miller refused to even allow it to be heard in the Senate. Presumably that's because Senator Miller runs a slush fund (oops, I mean slate fund) that he uses to dole out funds to endangered incumbents that would otherwise violate the campaign contribution limits. Senator Miller just donated $50,000 to the slate fund, and Senator Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County threw in $75,000. That's $125,000, and that will be augmented between now and September 12 with more, no doubt about it. Things are just as bad if not worse on the County level.

What does this get us? It gets us Clarksburg. It gets us slot machines. It gets us energy deregulation -- the amounts of money tossed around in 1999 by Enron and the big utility companies was legendary even back then. Some senators opposed it anyway -- Chris Van Hollen, Brian Frosh, Paul Pinsky, just to name a few. Ida Ruben, who had opposed energy deregulation in 1998, voted for it in 1999 -- and no doubt took home a boatload of cash in return. Seven years later, the boatload of cash being collected is by PEPCO and BG&E -- from you and me. The kabuki theater of blaming it on the Public Service Commission is just an effort to distract attention away from the fact that it was the legislature that pushed this bill in 1999 -- and Senator Miller was at the helm. Only when the shit hit the fan earlier this year did anyone even pay attention -- as the Gazette put it, energy deregulation was "six years of complacency, three weeks of panic." Well put. Only when the bad results of bad politics actually threaten the electoral prospects of incumbents does anyone actually pull their snout out of the contribution spigot and pay attention. Five months later, they're snorting dollars again. Ho hum.

If some kind of campaign finance reform doesn't happen, and soon, the developers will win by default. They have more money, and they can use that money strategically to affect elections whenever and however they want. Decisions about growth will similarly be made by default, and not necessarily the way the majority of the residents of this County may want.

But back to growth. This year, there are three candidates for County Council who will, if elected, force the new County Executive to at least have a conversation about growth -- one that hasn't been had in many years. One of them, Marc Elrich, who I admire, says essentially this about growth: "I'm not against growth. I'm willing to talk to the developers and see if we can't find some middle ground. But when they ask you to meet them halfway, they treat that as the starting point and then work from there, and the next thing you know, you're debating whether we're going to do 90 or 95% of what the developers want. I won't be that guy." Duchy Trachtenberg and Hugh Bailey take a similar approach. None of the incumbent at-large councilmembers will do this -- period.

Marc has the right approach. Stop now, before Montgomery County turns into something none of us recognize and none of us want (and probably, none of us can afford) and make some fundamental decisions about growth. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who do we want to include in the future of this County? What do we want to accomplish?

If we don't have the conversation, decisions will be made, but will they be the ones we want? I believe that the 2006 election is shaping up as a watershed. We will either proceed into the future in a reasoned way, making important decisions about the character of Montgomery County before we approve the next zoning variance, and the next and the next and the next, or we will continue to pretend that we can build and build and build without consequence, and in about 10 years, we will suddenly look around and wonder how the hell we got here.

Growth? Yes, definitely. But managed growth, keeping in mind the values we care about -- the environment, diversity, and infrastructure, just for starters. And keeping in mind that in any development decision, there are winners and losers, and we have to find ways to ameliorate the impact on the losers, lest we push out anyone who isn't white and earning over $250,000 a year. And campaign finance reform, to level the playing field on an election to election basis between the monied developer interests and the average voter who cares about development but doesn't have $4,000 laying around to throw at his or her favorite candidate.

That's my view. What's yours?

P.S. Please note that I didn't bring up either Leggett or Silverman. Not just because I'm annoyed at their blogger bullies, but because I don't think either one of them is going to have a major impact on the issue of growth. Both of them are pro-development to one degree or another, after all. To the extent that the runaway train of development can be braked, it is going to have to be via the County Council. Right now, there is a decided majority in favor of development full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. That MUST change, or else everything else I'm saying is just whistling past the graveyard. Some serious change at the state level wouldn't hurt either -- Senator Raskin would be a good start. But I digress. :-P


Blogger OnBackground said...

Interesting -- thanks for the perspective.

8/21/2006 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger Robin Ficker said...

Don't fret dear poster; for, help is on the way. You see developers won't be calling my tune. I'm taking no contreibutions from them.

8/21/2006 10:26:00 PM  
Blogger Gilbert said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/22/2006 12:29:00 PM  
Blogger Gilbert said...

I like the plan I heard about in Portland, OR (or was it Seattle WA?), where they drew a line around the city and said "no more development beyond this line, period!" This encourages the re-development of blighted urban and inner-suburban areas, efficient mass transit, stops sprawl, and it preserves farm and green space.

I'd like to see something of the sort here, though in the DC Metro area it would involve coordination with a number of differenct county and state governments, which probably makes it almost impossible. Maybe MoCo could set an example and provide a model.

8/22/2006 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger thecourtyard said...

The closest thing we have to the UGB here are agricultural reserves like the one in Montgomery County. I'm not sure how well it would work here - Portland's a small city in a small metropolitan area. We have eight million people between thirty counties, two states, and a federal district, and I doubt we could get full cooperation between them.

8/22/2006 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger FuturePurpleRider said...

Some years ago there was a forum here where one of the planners from Portland spoke. He was asked how they came up with the idea of the urban growth boundary, and answered that they copied it from Montgomery County's ag reserve.

8/24/2006 08:19:00 AM  

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