Thomas Kaufman (at podium), the senior director of corporate real estate for United Therapeutics, speaks at a news briefing last month. A resolution inroduced Tuesday would create $250,000 grants for biohealth facilities like United Therapeutics to expand or build in certain areas of the county. Credit: File Photo

Montgomery County is trying to speed up the development process for biohealth facilities — both for new companies and for current ones to expand in major growth corridors and near rail and bus transit.

The zoning change shortens the time for review by the county’s Planning Department, public input from 420 days — the current “speed to market” process — to 160 days, Council Member Andrew Friedson said Wednesday. At its longest, the process can take about 600 days.

Friedson, the lead sponsor, highlighted the impact of the zoning change Wednesday during a news briefing outside United Therapeutics Corporation in downtown Silver Spring.

He was joined by United Therapeutics officials, Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker, Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Ben Wu and others.

The change applies to any biohealth campus that wants to build 150,000 square feet of new space or add 50,000 square feet to an existing building or group of buildings. The development has to be in an opportunity zone, in a growth corridor or near bus or rail transit throughout the county.

Opportunity zones are census tracts eligible for tax incentives through the federal, state or county government. County officials say the zones are in historically underserved communities to help with economic revitalization. The downtown Silver Spring area, the home of United Therapeutics, is one of them. 

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Wu said during Wednesday’s briefing that the zoning change will help keep biohealth as a prominent economic development sector in the county.

He noted that an economic development report from last year titled “Connecting the Dots: Accelerating Economic Growth in Montgomery County, MD” calls for an additional two million square feet of laboratory space countywide.

Thomas Kaufman, the senior director of corporate real estate for United Therapeutics, said during Wednesday’s briefing that roughly 20 years ago, the site of the company was a parking lot. Now, it is home to a roughly 50,000-square-foot facility.

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In an interview, Kaufman said United Therapeutics is examining potential expansion opportunities at the Silver Spring location or at the corporation’s other location in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. He declined to give more details. 

Kaufman said the typical site plan approval process for projects like United Therapeutics’ is roughly two years, although some additions have happened faster.

Facilities like United Therapeutics’ need to open and operate as quickly as possible, given the work done inside, Kaufman said. Friedson said some of that includes organ manufacturing, including building mechanical lungs using a person’s DNA. 

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It’s difficult to justify building a major facility where it might take longer, Kaufman said. In Durham County, N.C., the initial review and planning process took about six months, he said. 

Some expansions in Montgomery County in the last 20 years have been quicker than two years, Kaufman said. A slower process can create challenges, given the competitive nature of the biohealth industry, he said.

“Obviously, there’s certain things about Montgomery County and our presence here that have justified it, but it always kind of put Montgomery County at a disadvantage, just for our internal site selection process,” Kaufman said. “That’s not unusual in the industry — everyone is comparing the Montgomery Counties of the world to the Durham Counties of the world to the Austin, Texases … and that’s why I do think this legislation will be very impactful.”

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More potential changes ahead

During Tuesday’s County Council meeting, there was a lengthy discussion about how to further lessen regulatory hurdles for biohealth companies to build new facilities or expand.

Council Member Will Jawando asked that the regulatory process be sped up even more than in Friedson’s zoning change. He wanted that change to apply to opportunity zones countywide, where he feels that segregation and racial inequities have hampered economic growth.

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Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Planning Director Gwen Wright said they had concerns about speeding up the process even more, due to staffing limitations, legal requirements for public input, and other factors.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Friedson also suggested financial incentives like waiving application fees and site plan review costs.

He said in an interview Wednesday that he is working on a proposal with Council Member Nancy Navarro. It would provide a per-square-foot financial incentive for biohealth companies that locate in opportunity zones — up to $240,000 for each project.

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When asked about balancing the need to attract business with financial breaks for companies, Friedson pointed to the long-term impacts that come from initial investments in projects.

“If we’re not having that conversation every time we’re making an investment, whether it’s an incentive or whether it’s a program, then we are failing taxpayers,” Friedson said. 

“[United Therapeutics] didn’t turn from a public parking lot into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, that is creating jobs and saving lives, by accident,” he added. “It didn’t happen by chance. It happened by choice.”

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Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdda-remix.newspackstaging.com