Most residents became aware of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich's veto of the appointment of Rockville resident James Hedrick to the County Planning Board not through a formal announcement by Elrich's office, but through the reaction of Hedrick's supporters after the County Council was informed of the executive decision. The first press release would come from Council President Evan Glass, who was displeased by Elrich's rejection of the Council's choice of Hedrick. It's unclear if Elrich did not anticipate that Glass would go public with the issue over the weekend, as the executive did not lay out his thinking in the public realm on Friday. But whatever the reason, Elrich did respond Saturday by posting his Friday letter to Glass online.
"I met with Mr. Hedrick for almost two hours on Friday, March 10," Elrich wrote, "and have reviewed his participation in land use issues in Montgomery County, his comments on social media, and other work. After this review, I have decided to disapprove his appointment to the Planning Board." Elrich noted that the recent replacement of the entire Planning Board due to a series of scandals, none of which have been investigated by the County Council or Maryland attorney general to date, made restoration of confidence and public participation in land use decisions essential to establishing a functional board.
"In the nuanced work of planning, there is a need to recognize the opinions and lived experiences of others and to come to the table ready to work together," Elrich wrote. "During my interview with Mr. Hedrick, he made it clear that he has no interest in doing this difficult work. Instead, his comments to me, as well as on social media, demonstrate an ideological close-mindedness as well as a disdain for those whose views do not comport with his."
"Mr. Hedrick’s view is that we need greater housing densities everywhere, that he has 'heard the same arguments' from those who oppose his view, and that he 'doesn’t have a lot of patience with those people,'" Elrich continued. "He seemed unaware that over the past 16 years, master plans have been used to substantially increase housing densities. He also seemed unaware of the fact that the forecasts for population growth in the county are based on the densities adopted in these master plans. This demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the county’s master plan process, one of the most important elements of the Planning Board’s responsibilities and one that requires balancing sometimes competing policies – what rezoning is needed to encourage buildout; what steps must be taken to promote racial equity and social justice issues such as displacement and gentrification; what consideration must be given to the environmental consequences of increased land coverage."
Elrich has long pointed out that Montgomery County has already approved sufficient new housing units to meet the forecasted need by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments by 2030. He has also sought to highlight a number of projects that would either preserve or create new affordable housing that his office has orchestrated since 2022. And many note that developers haven't even begun to fully build out all of the available "smart growth" areas near Metro stations in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring alone - nor the numerous "dumb growth"areas not within walking distance from Metro that the Council has deemed "activity centers," such as Westbard. In this context, Elrich and other slow growth advocates are perplexed as to why developers are now seeking to rezone existing single-family-home neighborhoods for multifamily housing, before even cashing in on the many land-use victories they've already won since 2002.
The controversial Thrive 2050 plan approved by the Council and previous, scandal-ridden Planning Board will provide only more luxury housing at market rates, despite claims that the plan was designed to increase housing opportunities for those who can't currently afford to live in the county. Even the Council's own consultants warned councilmembers that they had failed to adequately solicit and obtain feedback from people of color on racial and equity issues surrounding Thrive 2050. While proponents said Thrive 2050 would increase options, it in fact reduces options, by eliminating the single-family-home neighborhoods that are the main draw for homebuyers who choose the suburbs. Home prices in the few cities that have eliminated single-family-home zoning have not fallen as proponents have promised, but only continued to increase. The ultimate winners have been developers, not homebuyers or the poor.
However, Hedrick was not the only Council appointee to support Thrive 2050. Elrich wound down his letter to Glass by emphasizing the need to reduce the "toxic atmosphere" of the previous Planning Board, arguing that the appointment of Hedrick would not contribute to that effort. The boards of the last decade have been seen by many residents as only responding to the desires of developers and their paid lobbyists, very few of whom have registered as such with the state. Resident concerns were typically ignored, or even belittled, by planning commissioners.
"The appointment of a new Planning Board is an opportunity for a fresh start, removed from the toxic atmosphere that permeated the defunct Planning Board at all levels, including social media," Elrich wrote. "Unfortunately, Mr. Hedrick perpetuates, rather than alleviates, that atmosphere. He has made insulting and dismissive statements about those with opposing viewpoints. When asked about this, he disappointingly expressed no regrets."
"Such rigid views are anathema to restoring the reputation of the Planning Board and the public’s confidence in its decisions. Land use planning in Montgomery County is at an inflection point that will determine how we move forward in addressing housing and community building mindful of the important role land use decisions play in ameliorating the increasingly apparent effects of climate-driven storm events on our homes, businesses, and transportation systems. We need Planning Board members with good judgment who are open-minded, constructive, and, above all, interested in hearing from all sides in a fair and transparent process before they have reached a decision. Mr. Hedrick does not meet those standards."
Elrich concluded his letter with an almost-Trumpian touch of all-caps, declaring "the appointment of James Hedrick to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is DISAPPROVED." It was not immediately clear if the meeting between Elrich and Hedrick was recorded in any fashion, so that Elrich's characterizations of Hedrick's responses could be verified. Elrich's sizeable constituent base among homeowners countywide appeared to be satisfied by the decision, based on social media reaction. The move by Elrich was exactly the sort of action his voters put him in office to take, and puts the Hedrick holdouts from the February 28th Council approval vote on the spot this coming Tuesday, when Glass promised the Council would discuss Elrich's veto.
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