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  • Writer's pictureCasey Anderson

Clarksburg: How Did It Work Out?

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

The Clarksburg master plan adopted in 1994 was intended to set the stage for development of a town center served by high-quality transit, a passel of office parks along I-270 that would attract thousands of jobs, and a collection of residential neighborhoods that would grow in harmony with the farms and forests to the north, east, and west. Some parts of some of these things happened, but nothing seemed to go quite according to plan.

Scandal Sidetracks Development of the Town Center

By 1995 the Planning Board had approved applications to develop a neo-traditional community in the town center with a maximum of 1,300 residential units, 100,000 square feet of office, and 150,000 square feet of retail. Construction began and residents started moving in, but when the Newland Communities, the town center developer, made a public presentation on the retail portion of the project in March of 2004, several residents said it fell short of what they had been led to expect. They objected to the location and size of the proposed grocery store, reductions in the amount of office and retail space, the overall design, and other aspects of Newland's proposal.

These residents were not opposed to the development of the town center - in fact, they were eager to see it completed - but they wanted it to include more offices and retail with less emphasis on accessibility by car. As they started looking more closely at what had been built by that point, they discovered that many structures did not match plans approved by the Planning Board, although the deviations were not necessarily tied to the shortcomings in design that had prompted their investigation. For example, some buildings exceeded approved height limits or encroached on required setbacks.

Amy Presley, one of the Clarksburg residents who called attention to problems at the town center and with the planning process, later served on the Planning Board

This episode pointed to sloppiness and lax oversight by government agencies and led to the departure of the Planning Board chair and Planning Director, but its main effect was to delay development of the town center, and in particular the retail component of the project. After negotiating a compliance plan and attempting to move forward, Newland eventually called it quits and sold their interest to Elm Street Development in 2011. Elm Street, operating through the aptly-named Third Try LLC, renegotiated the compliance plan, persuading the Planning Board that some aspects of the approved town center, including structured parking and a larger amount of retail space, were unrealistic. The pared-down retail component, including a long-awaited grocery store, is set to begin construction.

Three Battles that Shaped Clarksburg

The delays and disruption caused by the controversies over the town center were a big setback, but at least as important were three battles that had nothing to do with development irregularities and were only indirectly related to the town center.

The Battle of the Hospitals

Adventist Healthcare had planned to build a hospital in Clarksburg since 2002, seeing the area as a logical expansion of the services it provided at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville and an emergent care facility in Germantown. In 2008, however, rival Holy Cross filed an application with state regulators for a hospital next to Montgomery College's Germantown campus, located just a few miles south of Clarksburg. When Holy Cross received approval for its proposed facility in 2011, Adventist was left holding the bag - or, to be more precise, it was left owning a big piece of land it no longer needed.

Adventist had planned a health care campus anchored by a hospital west of I-270

The Battle of the Outlet Malls

Adventist found an exit in 2013 when Simon Property Group, Streetscape Partners, and New England Development agreed to acquire 47 acres of land from Adventist for an outlet mall. Peterson Companies had just announced plans for a similar project on the Miles-Coppola properties east side of I-270 west of 355 and north of 121.

The competing proposals set up a battle with important implications for the future of Clarkburg. Substitution of Simon's outlet mall for a hospital and related buildings was a departure from the assumptions of the 1994 plan about what kinds of jobs Clarksburg would attract. A major shopping center on the west side of I-270 also seemed likely to absorb demand for retail in the surrounding area, making it harder to attract restaurants and similar businesses to the town center.

I was on the Planning Board at the time and I would be the first to admit that the health care campus originally proposed by Adventist was closer to what the drafters of the master plan had in mind for the land purchased by Simon. I also thought that Peterson's proposal would have helped support retail, transit, and other public and private infrastructure and amenities in and around the town center by adding residents - and drawing customers - to the area.

The Planning Board and County Council were cognizant, though, of the declining appeal of suburban office parks as demand was shifting to more urban locations - or at least to places with access to more amenities. Employers also were reducing the square footage allocated to each employee to cut costs, making the prospects for landing large office tenants in Clarksburg even less likely. As for competition with the town center, Third Try said it was not concerned about the Simon project as long as it did not include a grocery store. Ultimately the Planning Board's decision was supposed to rest on the master plan, which simply called for "employment" uses on the site. The Simon mall would create about 1,500 permanent jobs, so both the Planning Board and County Council concluded that it was consistent with the plan even if it was not the most desirable outcome.

So just as Holy Cross stole the march on Adventist in the race to build an upcounty hospital, Simon managed to jump in front of Peterson, partly because Adventist had already done much of the work necessary to prepare their property for development.

The Battle of Ten Mile Creek

What ultimately doomed Peterson's proposed mixed use mall project, though, was the eruption of a long-simmering dispute over the environmental impact of development. The 1994 plan punted on the question of how much development would be allowed in the Ten Mile Creek watershed by establishing staging requirements tied to future assessments of water quality.

In 2012 supporters of more development decided to call the question by proposing extension of public water and sewer service to the Ten Mile Creek area, triggering the master plan's requirement for a water quality review. The County Council responded by directing the Planning Board to reopen the master plan and reevaluate how much development should be allowed in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

Ten Mile Creek runs through beautiful natural areas but also straddles I-270 and includes part of the planned town center district

The decision to revisit the Clarksburg plan's recommendations for Ten Mile Creek generated a flurry of lobbying from every direction. In addition to Peterson, Pulte Homes wanted to develop 538 acres of land it had bought in the Ten Mile Creek watershed northwest of Route 121 (Clarksburg Road) and West Old Baltimore Road. With the transferable development rights (TDRs) it had acquired from property owners in the Agricultural Reserve, Pulte thought it should be able to build more than 1,000 homes. Advocates for curbing development, however, were ready to organize. The Sierra Club made clear that it considered downzoning the Ten Mile Creek watershed a top political priority, and the Countryside Alliance, the Audobon Naturalist Society, and many civic groups joined in.

After a whirlwind series of reports, hearings and work sessions the Planning Board recommended a 25 percent impervious surface limit on the Miles-Coppola property, where Peterson wanted to build its outlet mall and housing, along with other properties in the watershed east of I-270. The Board recommended a 10 percent impervious cap on the properties that Pulte planned to subdivide west of the interstate. The County Council went farther, adopting a six percent impervious surface cap for the entire watershed that killed the Peterson project and dramatically reduced the number of homes Pulte could build.

What Did - and Didn't - Get Built

As explained in the first post in this series, the 1994 plan tried to balance the desire to support transit and establish a community where residents could walk to many services and amenities against the desire to protect the environment and preserve the rural character of the surrounding area. This effort at balance led to zoning recommendations that kept densities and building heights low by the standards of the kinds of walkable, transit-oriented development that inspired the plan's concept for the town center. What actually got built was well short of the plan's already-constrained limits. This chart compares the zoning envelope theoretically available for housing under the 1994 plan to achieved yields:

Housing development in Clarksburg, 1994 plan vs. actual Source: Montgomery Planning Department

The only area covered by the plan that met the 1994 buildout estimate for housing was Cabin Branch. The Miles-Coppola property where Peterson had wanted to put its mixed use outlet project was approved for 336 homes on 98 acres, but Pulte took the biggest hit, getting approval for 326 units, less than a third of the number it had wanted, after the Ten Mile Creek downzoning. As part of the approval Pulte was required to dedicate 312 acres to the Parks Department and plant 82 acres of new forest on the site. Even so, the coalition that had backed the downzoning has sued to stop the project.

The Town Center: Most of the Housing, Less of the Retail, None of the Office Space

The town center, which was supposed to have the most density in order to support transit service, has not met the modest goals set in 1994. While a few parcels have (barely) achieved densities of the 9-11 units per acre considered appropriate immediately adjacent to planned transit stops, overall densities in the transit corridor are much lower. Third Try expects to build a little less than 100,000 square feet of retail and no office space, even though the plan contemplated up to 300,000 square feet of commercial development in the town center. Construction of the retail buildings, including the grocery store, will not begin until 2024, almost two decades after the master plan was adopted.

Transportation and Public Facilities

A number of public facilities and amenities that were recommended in the master plan have not been built, or have been provided only in partial or incomplete form. Schools, parks, and a library are among the projects delayed, scaled back, or simply not funded.

Topping the list of missing infrastructure is the transit line to anchor the town center and connect residents to jobs and services to the south. The Corridor Cities Transitway, which was originally planned as a light rail line serving stops from Shady Grove to Clarksburg was first downgraded to bus rapid transit, then abandoned by the Maryland Department of Transportation, and finally recast in the "Corridor Forward' transit plan of 2022 as a series of bus lines, with one running along Snowden Farm Parkway before taking a left hook through the town center and then crossing I-270 to serve Cabin Branch.

Close behind transit on the list of unbuilt projects are new and expanded roads, including construction of Mid-County Highway Extended (also known as "M-83), extension of Observation Drive from Germantown to Clarksburg town center, and extension of LIttle Seneca Highway with an interchange at I-270.

Does It Add Up?

The 10,494 homes built in Clarksburg since 1994 represent only two-thirds of the 14,930 anticipated by the master plan. Almost none of the 8.6 million to 10.3 million square feet of planned commercial development has materialized. Still, the population of Clarksburg has grown to just over 29,000 residents - short of the 43,000 projected in the plan but in relative terms a bigincrease for an area that was mostly farmland in the 1990s.

So what - and who - is responsible for the missing pieces? What can be done to give Clarksburg the gravitational pull it needs to build a strong sense of community, support infrastructure and attract businesses, and achieve the goals of the 1994 plan? And what are the lessons for planning in other places? Answers will come in the next post.

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