Region Forward Blog

Land Use Proposals in Metro Washington Generate Controversy

Oct 31, 2011


Land use isn’t something that regularly finds itself at the forefront of most peoples’ minds. However because it’s something that impacts everyone’s daily life in a very direct way when the topic of land use does come up folks tend to have very strong opinions about it.

That’s one reason why Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s plan to create walkable mixed-use neighborhoods across the state is running into stiff resistance in some of the more rural parts of the state. The proposal PlanMaryland embraces many of the same principles as Region Forward though some view it as an entrenchment on the decision-making power of local governments when it comes to planning (and it risks also becoming a major political fight between a Democratic governor and Republican state legislators). While explaining to the Atlantic that the state has had the legal authority to pursue such a plan for decades O’Malley citing forecasts that more than one million additional people will move to the area in the next few decades provides a strong case for why such a plan is needed:

“We have to accommodate the population growth somewhere. We’re all going to have to become more comfortable with higher density and making decisions that foster that higher density and promote and improve quality of life in our city centers. That includes mass transit as well as improving public safety sanitation and education.”

Montgomery County voted recently to approve a potentially transformative development plan that mirrors a lot of what’s included in PlanMaryland. The County plan also did not pass without first stirring up controversy as we discussed in October.

Another high-profile land use project that is generating controversy is the redevelopment of Alexandria’s waterfront. The proposal includes zoning changes to permit increased density and height limits as well as the development of hotels on the waterfront. The city’s official proposal which could cost between $50-200 million will transform what Patricia Sullivan at The Washington Post called “a neglected front yard in this appearance-conscious city” into a vibrant center of activity. Not everyone however has been won over – a group of opponents to the plan is preparing to release an alternative proposal that largely leaves current policy in place (ie no zoning changes to allow for increased density or hotel development).

In both cases increased density appears to be a central concern for the proposals’ opponents. As the Montgomery County Planning Director recently noted density can take several forms – it doesn’t automatically translate into skyscrapers – and it doesn’t have to be scary. Correcting misperceptions of what density means is critical. Done correctly increased density that integrates into the existing community can make an area livelier safer more walkable and generally more appealing. As new George Mason University research indicates homeowners should cheer increased density – walkable neighborhoods withstood the recent housing bust extraordinarily well compared to their more sprawling counterparts.

Land Use Update is launching today as a regular feature of The Yardstick.

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