An interim Planning Board member and four other Democrats highlighted the need for more community engagement and meeting climate and transportation goals in the county’s new general master plan, in interviews for an open Planning Board seat.
The five Democrats running are:
- Raj Barr-Kumar, a local architect at Barr-Kumar Architects Engineers PC in Washington, D.C.
- Cherri Branson, an interim Planning Board member, former director of the county’s Office of Procurement and former interim County Councilmember.
- James Hedrick, a senior housing analyst at the Federal Housing Finance Agency in Washington, D.C.
- Brian O’Looney, an architect for Torti Gallas + Partners in Washington, D.C.
- Alexander Ratner, federal policy manager for American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington, D.C.
Four of the candidates were interviewed Tuesday; O’Looney was interviewed separately on Feb. 7. They are being considered by County Councilmembers for one vacant seat on the Planning Board.
The Council is filling three vacancies—one will be a Democrat, one will be a Republican, and one will be an unaffiliated member. County and state law dictates that no more than three members of the Planning Board can be from the same political party.
The County Council is filling the seats after drama engulfed the Planning Board, beginning last September. First, a full bar of alcohol was found in then-Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson’s office. Then, days later, he was accused of using vulgar language in the workplace, which he denied.
Planning Board members met in closed session and then fired Gwen Wright, the county’s planning director. Not long after that—once the County Council started investigating the Planning Board—all five of its members resigned.
All five Democrats agreed during their interviews that there needs to be better trust, transparency and community outreach, no matter who the new Planning Board members are.
Branson said that it’s important that residents fully understand the business of the Planning Board, even if they don’t necessarily agree with certain site plans, master plans or other work. The board could do a better job of explaining the complexities of its work.
Hedrick agreed. He said it’s “very obvious” that the Planning Board lost credibility due to recent events. It’s important that its members and staff connect with residents—especially with those who aren’t fully plugged into issues involving housing, economic development and land use.
“If you sit there and wait for people to come to you, what you get is people like me who have an obsessive problem with housing policy and land use,” Hedrick quipped. “And that’s not representative of the community; it doesn’t build the trust that you need.”
Ratner said that the Planning Board could consider scheduling meetings outside of the normal Thursday day slot and heading out to parks or other community facilities.
Barr-Kumar said in those sessions, it’s important that the Planning Board members and staff explain what is being proposed within affected neighborhoods, so that it’s more tangible for residents to understand.
O’Looney, in a prior meeting, said the fix is simple: Respect voices with various opinions and keep the lines of communication open.
The five Democrats were also asked how they would implement climate-related goals in future months and years—whether it be centered around Thrive Montgomery 2050 (the county’s recently adopted general master plan update) or the Planning Board’s recent growth and infrastructure plan.
Ratner said although he understood the county’s growth and infrastructure plan isn’t centered on climate change, he would like to see more measures related to sustainability in that and other plans and issues moving forward.
County officials have gotten off to a good start on it, through the Building Energy Performance Standards bill that was passed last year, plans to provide more affordable public transit and more resources for electric vehicles, Ratner said. But implementation is key, he added.
Hedrick said he saw land-use policy and environmental policy as one and the same, because land-use control is one of the most important tools local and state governments can use to combat climate change.
Branson said that incentives—to residents and developers alike—are key in order to meet those goals. But Planning Board members also have to push for greater measures, he said—like requiring electric vehicle charging stations near strip malls and similar properties.
Barr-Kumar said it’s vital that new construction be net-zero energy and water consumption. But it’s also important to decentralize energy systems—like installing solar panels on more roofs countywide, so that facilities can get their power “right off the roof,” he added.
O’Looney agreed that more solar panels are important, including in residential areas—he and his family fought hard in his neighborhood in Gaithersburg to install them himself. He added that reducing residents’ dependence on using cars to get around the county and region is vital, especially implementing that idea in future growth plans.
“That’s an easy, direct connection” from the master planning process to on-the-ground results, O’Looney said.
The County Council will pick its three members for the Planning Board in the coming weeks. Branson (Democrat), Amy Presley (Republican) and David Hill (unaffiliated) will serve through through the end of February. Chair Jeff Zyontz (Democrat) and Robert Piñero (Democrat) will serve through about June 1.