Liveable Clarksburg Coalition Response To Planning Board
Liveable Clarksburg Coalition, Inc. response to discussion at the June 20 Planning Board Work Session on the Clarksburg Master Plan Stage 4
Dear Chair Carrier and Planning Board Commissioners:
Several members of the Steering Committee of the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition attended the staff briefing on its report and recommendations, June 20, 2013 at the Planning Board offices.
The staff has done commendable work, particularly on environmental issues. Unfortunately, the entire process suffers deeply from the way in which “conventional wisdom” and outdated assumptions are not being critically reexamined in light of 20 years of learned experience. We refer both to the way the study scenarios were designed, and the discussion itself. You might say that the reliance on convenient assumptions is on a collision course with some inconvenient facts.
For example, let’s start with “community building.” Everybody agrees it is a shared goal, but nobody has defined it. It is irrationally being propped up to justify maintaining the maximum possible housing and population density for Clarksburg, as derived from the 1994 Plan. It might be a developer perspective that maximum density equates with “community building” but that is certainly not a view shared by real communities of people who want to live, work and play in the community. It is pretty clear what the community wants – a walkable/liveable/family-oriented community that achieves at least some semblance of the idyllic vision of 1994. At this point, maximizing density in Stage 4 is irrelevant to the goals the community seeks – and yet, “community building” is cited as a justification for needing the density that Stage 4 would add. Just consider that Town Center – which everybody wants fulfilled – was never dependent on Stage 4 density. Town Center was supposed to be finished many years ago as part of Stage 1. A community in which Stage 4 never existed would be more than adequate to support a vibrant Town Center.
Please recall, in 1993, the Planning Board correctly understood that 5 acre density in the Ten Mile Creek area made sense. The Council at that time disagreed, and greatly increased potential density for Stage 4, but had the good sense to leave the door open for future study. We ask you now— the straight path forward is to remind the Council that in 1993 the Planning Board was correct and in 1994 the Council got it wrong. There must be a diplomatic way to do that!
Let’s consider transit – which at this point is the elephant in the corner. Commissioner Presley was very right to press for the idea that no future transit options should be eliminated simply because implementation of transit today is going to be sub-optimal. But what are we to make of this inconvenient fact: the 1994 Master Plan said “Transit is an essential feature of this Plan; without it, the Plan’s vision cannot be realized” (p 22 of 1994 Plan). If transit is not going to be adequately fulfilled, is it not obvious that two things need to happen?
• First, as Commissioner Presley said, no future transit plans should be boxed out permanently.
• Second, without the implementation of the transit vision, the build-out of Clarksburg needs to be scaled to preserve the walkable/livable community that can best be achieved under the true circumstances we now face. It is deeply sad that Clarksburg is already getting the short end of the stick on transit. But let’s at least stop pretending that a shortfall in transit does not change other things. Indeed—it changes everything. Let’s do what we can with express buses, ride on buses, and maybe eventually even Bethesda-style circulars. But let’s not create density and traffic on 355 that will be the very opposite of what people who bought homes in Clarksburg were led to expect. Let’s not ignore the fact that Clarksburg is a growing community sandwiched between two lane roads, some of which will not be enlarged for decades if ever, which are flooded with commuters from Damascus and Frederick every day.
To say it very plainly – if the transit vision of 1994 cannot be fully realized, then the Plan for density itself cannot be fully realized. The Planning Board needs to speak plain truth to the County Council on this critical fact.
We are, unfortunately, already well along in the process of creating a car-dependent community with inadequate roads. Just consider the proposal for a retail mall on 355 almost a mile from Town Center. That mall would not enhance a walkable/liveable community. If Clarksburg residents use it, they are going to drive there. It would be a regional retail mall that has nothing to do with a community that is supposed to be walkable and liveable. It is a destination mall whose very survival will depend on bringing enormous amounts of traffic from outside Clarksburg, every day, into Clarksburg. Clarksburg would be far better off with mixed use development that is low density but allows for creation of some higher-skill and higher- wage jobs where the mall might otherwise be located. Given what we have learned about Ten Mile Creek, density should be as low as possible in this location.
Some of the discussion on June 20 causes us to implore you to bring a reality check to every discussion item. For example, at one point on June 20, there was speculation that agriculture might be just as destructive as development because a Commissioner thought incorrectly that in agriculture the ground is plowed up every year. We held our breath hoping that somebody would say the words “no till agriculture” and somebody else might actually describe the mixed agriculture that exists near Ten Mile Creek. Unfortunately, the discussion took place as if this were 1975 and decades of successful effort to introduce no till agriculture (among other reasons, to save the Chesapeake Bay) had never occurred. Just for the record – there is virtually no place in the Agricultural Reserve where the ground is plowed up every year. In addition, much of the agricultural land in the area of Ten Mile Creek is pasture or is in hay crops which are rarely disturbed.
To mention another example, in all the discussion about environmental damage that may result, and mitigation that may occur, there was virtually no discussion on June 20 of the Little Seneca Reservoir. It is, of course, a primary reason why Ten Mile Creek is important. Is it worth risking? Is it worth protecting? Or is it merely to be collateral damage in the pursuit of maximum density for Stage 4? It is an emergency water supply for the County and the region. Its purpose cannot now be ignored simply because it lies far enough downstream from Clarksburg to be conveniently left out of the discussion.
We were very pleased to hear the discussion by staff of Environmental Site Design, and we hope the Board noted a complete debunking by the staff of the idea that ESD is somehow the magic potion that prevents environmental damage for a sensitive watershed like Ten Mile Creek. You will continue to hear about ESD from developers because it is the only way they can pretend they will not degrade Ten Mile Creek. But severely degrade it they will – unless density and impervious surfaces are limited beyond any “scenario” the staff report is even considering.
We offer these comments constructively, and we ask that the Board give renewed direction to the staff to protect Town Center’s viability, rather than authorize a traffic jam all around it. We ask that you give renewed direction to protect Ten Mile Creek, rather than authorize its degradation with no realistic hope of enforceable mitigation. We ask that you take a fresh look at the convenient but false assumptions lingering from 1994. It is not too late to make sure the staff is allowed to challenge outdated assumptions that are colliding with inconvenient facts. The County Council can overrule the Board’s recommendations again, as it did in 1994, but the facts and the risks must not be ignored. We actually do have confidence that the Council will make smart choices for Clarksburg and for the region. Please do not limit your assessment in a way that might limit their choices.