June 15, 2010

Outgoing planning chairman openly discusses problems with Montgomery County executive & council

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer. Monday, June 14, 2010; B01

If Royce Hanson could rewind to 2006, when he left a comfortable academic post to resuscitate Montgomery County's parks and planning agency, he would probably say thanks, but no thanks.

"I had operated under what turns out to be a false assumption: that the planning board is the principal adviser to the County Council on planning matters. It turns out that in many cases, the board is given no more credit . . . than somebody who walks in off the street. "Had I known . . . I probably would not have come back under any circumstances," said Hanson, 78, whose term ended last week. Nationally recognized for innovative thinking about planning, Hanson was embraced by the council to lead the county out of the thicket of Clarksburg, a roiling controversy in 2006 that had become synonymous with lax oversight of development.

It was Hanson's second tour of duty; he had chaired the board more than 30 years earlier, when he led the effort to protect 93,000 agricultural acres in the county as a development-free zone and helped formulate the law that allows growth if there are enough schools and roads to support it. Taking the helm again, Hanson put in place a final design for the urbanizing suburb, creating a vision for revamping Rockville Pike into an urban center and leading efforts to create a biosciences community near Gaithersburg. He also tightened environmental enforcement -- although not enough, in the eyes of many local environmentalists -- and stepped up oversight of construction violations. He launched a major rewrite of the county's complicated zoning law and tried to weather substantial budget cuts.

In many ways, Hanson has helped Montgomery rethink the way it manages growth. "There is more focus on what the outcome is and whether that is good for us as a community. He has helped foster that," said Patrick O'Neill, a development lawyer and president of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

Jim Humphrey, a land-use expert for Montgomery's County Civic Federation, said he thinks that Hanson had done much to improve enforcement after Clarksburg but still worries that developers have the upper hand. "The planning department has still been allowed to act more as a partner with developers than keeping true to approved visions for communities," he said.

Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) also praised Hanson for his post-Clarksburg improvements. "He said, 'The buck stops here, and we are going to do things differently,' and he did." But Elrich said that Hanson and his top lieutenant, Rollin Stanley, who is also widely regarded as a creative thinker about planning, too often ignored other viewpoints, especially on matters of traffic and density. "The question should be, 'How can I allow more growth without wrecking the place?' " Elrich said.

'Natural tensions'

With such a bulging résumé, Hanson should feel some satisfaction. But his tenure has been bittersweet, his dealings with elected officials a major reason for his frustrations. Too often, he said, he has bumped into what he thinks is a "concerted effort" by politicians to diminish the planning agency's role and wrest control from the semiautonomous five-member planning board. As a former candidate for county executive and for Congress, who led reapportionment efforts that sparked a Supreme Court ruling striking down Maryland's system as discriminatory, Hanson knows that elected officials ignore their in-box at their peril. Planners, he said, can help them balance the needs of the present with their hopes for the future by persuading politicians "to imagine something different for people who are not calling, because many of them have not been born or have not moved to the county."

Timothy Firestine, the top aide to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), acknowledged Hanson's frustrations. But he said they are due to "natural tensions" among political leaders, developers and planners.

"I know that Royce feels that way, but . . . there was no concerted effort to say, 'Let's diminish their role.' "

Leggett had his own frustrations, Firestine said. The planning agency's sometimes ponderous approach slowed things down, forcing the executive branch to fend off complaints that Montgomery is a place where process impedes progress. "It wasn't good marketing, so to speak," Firestine said.

An unplanned detour

Hanson had not planned to come back. He had written a series of policy papers for the council after Clarksburg, advising how to right the agency and pick a chairman. Council members decided against reappointing their former colleague, Derick Berlage, as planning board chairman and eventually asked Hanson to take the job, which paid about $150,000. He accepted reluctantly, having a long list of other personal priorities, such as continuing his academic research and writing more books about planning and constitutional law.

For the first year, things seemed smooth. Hanson set up new procedures within the agency to guard against more Clarksburgs. But soon there were challenges. The council took up the planning board's proposed growth policy and substantially revised proposed changes or simply ignored them, saying they did not mesh with the council's vision and could bring too much congestion. Last year, council members embraced some of Hanson's proposals for more dense, urban development but also rejected a key component: a test to show how much traffic is too much.

Planning board member Joseph Alfandre said he sometimes found agency proposals confusing but that some of that was because board members often were kept in the dark about details. "I don't think there will ever be a watchdog as watchful as Royce," he said. But, he said, he looks forward to the arrival of Francoise Carrier, who has been named to succeed Hanson and who he thinks may operate more collegially. "I think we are capable of so much more."

An academic approach

Trained as a lawyer and planner, Hanson would occasionally vent in public when his views were challenged, at times sounding like an exasperated parent. Other times, he could meticulously walk his audience through plans, explain why the agency's approach worked and win over his critics.

Board vice chairman Marye Wells-Harley, appointed a year ago to the panel, found Hanson's vast knowledge indispensable. "He was a great mentor," she said.

But as the planning agency moved ahead with a series of blueprints for big chunks of the county, the council's staff was less hospitable. Hanson said the staff sometimes acted as "a super planning agency." The Leggett administration also caught his ire when the county executive sought to make an end run around the planning board in the name of economic development to push projects including a Live Nation venue in Silver Spring or a Costco in Wheaton.

"If there is any big disappointment, I feel like I have lost the confidence of the council, on and off but particularly in the last year," Hanson said, despite persuading it to consider ways to accommodate more growth and center it near public transit. "The only way that a chairman here or a board here can serve them well is to tell them from time to time things they do not want to hear," he added.

Hanson finds debate healthy, if sometimes disappointing. "My view is that conflict is useful. It illuminates choices that are real. One should not, in the interest of some kind of cooperative pablum, not vigorously defend positions that you think are correct." At the same time, he said, "you should be willing to accept reasonable accommodations."

For his next act, Hanson plans to write at least three more books, including one on planning that will use Montgomery as a case study.

"Some of what happened in the county is instructive to follow," he said. "And some of it is instructive to avoid." SOURCE: Washington Post

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