Council Passes Science City Master Plan, Citizens Stay Vigilant
Community group says even with the revisions, impact on existing neighborhoods is still a major concern.
After more than two years of debate, in May the Montgomery County Council approved plans that would allow a major "Science City" to be built at the intersection of Darnestown and Shady Grove roads, but resident groups that opposed the decision plan to continue to try and influence how it will be implemented.
The final Great Seneca Science Corridor master plan approved commercial development of up to 17.5 million square feet, down from the 20 million originally proposed. The plan allows up to 9,000 additional residences to be built and aims to create as many as 52,000 jobs for the area. The plan also raised the minimum on the amount of commercial development that must be related to research from 30 percent to 40 percent.
With the potential of thousands of additional people that the development would bring to the area, transportation continues to be a key concern. The plan proposes extending Route 28 and Sam Eig Highway to eight lanes and places emphasis on the importance of bike paths and the development of the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), which would be either a light rail or rapid bus system and is recommended to run through Science City and connect to the Shady Grove Metro.
The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) reviewed the master plan proposals for realigning the CCT through Science City and found the realignment to be feasible. The MTA is still reviewing the environmental impact of the realignment, according to its website.
"If the CCT isn't built, then it will be hard to implement the vision of this plan and development will not be allowed to go forward," said Nancy Sturgeon, the lead planner of the Great Seneca Science Corridor Master Plan. "It's very unusual for a plan to put the breaks on development like this, but we felt transport is important for this to work."
Those opposed to the plan remain concerned that even with the expansion of roads and addition of public transit, the thousands of additional commuters would only create more congestion on the roadways.
Donna Baron, founder and coordinator of the Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition and operator of a website called Scale It Back, said that the changes are not enough to make a real difference.
She also questions why only 40 percent of the development would be biomedical related if science is the stated point of the facility.
"If this was going to be a world-class biotech [center], then it should be 80 percent and maybe a few restaurants," she said. "But they've turned this into a moneymaker."
Johns Hopkins University bought the 138-acre farm, located on the corner of Muddy Branch and Darnestown roads, from Elizabeth Banks in 1989, under the condition that the property be used for "agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes only," as was stated in the deed.
According to her nephew Tim Newell, Banks had offers for up to $52 million for the property but chose to sell to Hopkins, because she did not want the property to be turned into a commercial development.
After Banks died in 2005, Hopkins announced its plans to build a Science City on the farm. In 2008, Hopkins announced that the development on the farm would include 4.6 to 6.5 million square feet of commercial space to accommodate 15,000 to 20,000 people in buildings up to 15 stories high.
That is what motivated Baron to begin organizing her neighbors, and she created the Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition to fight the changing of the master plan to accommodate the university.
After retiring several years ago, Baron took up painting and jewelry making, but she put those activities aside for the past two and a half years to devote herself to this issue.
During that time, the County Council examined the issue and took several of Baron's and other citizens' concerns into consideration in the revised master plan.
The revised plan added new air quality, water protection and sustainability requirements to any future developments. It also emphasized the importance of public space.
The plan calls for a new elementary school to be constructed to accommodate new residents. That is going on the assumption that the smaller houses that will be built will attract younger families with elementary school-aged children.
Additionally, a new public safety center will be built at the site of the Training Academy on Great Seneca Highway that will include police, fire and emergency services.
Baron said she will continue to do all she can to make sure the concerns of the existing communities are represented during the plan's implementation.
At the moment, she and her fellow organizers have been focusing on the election. On her website, she rates county council incumbents and candidates by their positions on the Science Corridor issue. She also notes the percentage of funds candidates received from what she calls "developers and special interests."
She gives the highest marks to councilmen Mark Elrich and Phil Andrews, both of whom she said worked closely with the community during the development of the plan.
"I think the best thing that came out of this is now we have a whole segment of people who are much more politically aware," said Baron, who herself had little political interest or experience before this. "We're trying to get people on the council who will question this."
Sturgeon said the Planning Board will keep the community involved in the implementation through an advisory committee that will monitor all development proposals. The board will be made up of a mix of local residents, representatives of local government and of development stakeholders. It will hold public meetings and will make recommendations to the County Council and the Planning Board, if development plans impact existing communities or public spaces.
About 15 people applied to be on the advisory board, including Baron. The full list of people who will be on the board will be announced on Sept. 30.