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  • Writer's pictureCasey Anderson

Clarksburg: What Were They Thinking?

Bill Clinton was in his first term as president and Doug Duncan was elected to his first term as county executive. Fax machines were still far more popular than e-mail, but Montgomery County was positioning itself, with some success, as an attractive home for technology companies. Office parks dotted the I-270 corridor, starting at Rock Spring near the Beltway and extending to the Comsat campus just north of Germantown.


All of this is to say that the world was a very different place in 1994, when the Clarksburg master plan was adopted. By that point the development of Clarksburg had been anticipated - and contested - for decades. As the northernmost "Corridor City" contemplated by the "Wedges and Corridors" plan adopted in 1964 to set expectations for where and how to grow, Clarksburg had long been seen as a future center of activity, but the area was still largely rural. With the Planning Department preparing to draft a new master plan for Clarksburg, now seems like a good time to review what the old plan was trying to achieve, whether - and why - it succeeded or failed, and how a new plan might resolve some of the tensions created by the compromises made in 1994.


Walkable TOD Surrounded by Farmland and Open Space: The Best of Both Worlds?


The Kentlands had demonstrated the potential for walkable neighborhoods with a mix of housing and commercial uses as an alternative to sprawl. County leaders also recognized that focused density is essential to support transit and reduce reliance on driving. On the other hand, planners and elected officials were concerned about the impact of development on water quality, and many residents were uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging rapid development in Clarksburg, which was still made up of large tracts of sparsely developed land, including LIttle Bennett Regional Park and many farms.


An aerial photo of the Clarksburg area taken in 1993. Source: Montgomery County GIS site (https://gis3.montgomerycountymd.gov/historical_images/)

Is the Bowl of Porridge Too Dense, Not Dense Enough, or Just Right?


The central tension in the plan that emerged was the desire to encourage just enough development to support a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town center but not so much that the rural character of its surroundings or the quality of area streams would be harmed:


Densities proposed are intended to be high enough to support Plan objectives relating to housing mix, compact neighborhoods, transit- and pedestrian-oriented land use patterns, and retail and employment uses, yet moderate enough to reduce pressure on Clarksburg's environmental network. Achieving this rather delicate and imprecise balance is a difficult goal but one which must be achieved if Clarksburg's outstanding environmental setting is to be preserved.


Clarksburg is located on the I-270 Corridor, which the General Plan Refinement identifies as a major development area. The Refinement's intent is contained in the land use objective, 'Direct the major portion of Montgomery County's future growth to the Urban Ring and the I-270 Corridor.' However, environmental resources in Clarksburg also require protection. Both the General Plan Refinement throughout the environmental goal and the 1992 Planning Act urge protection of sensitive areas. Addressing these two factors has been a challenge throughout the planning process.


The plan also recognized preexisting "development commitments," including:

  • The Comsat campus and "Gateway 270" property abutting Comsat to the north, which were expected to be developed as major employment centers

  • Midcounty Highway, identified as an arterial road rather than a highway through Clarksburg, to connect Clarksburg to Germantown and Gaithersburg and:

  • Future widening of I-270

The resulting plan called for development of a town center straddling Route 355 just south of Little Bennett Regional Park and north of Clarksburg Road, served by a new transit line that eventually might be extended all the way to Frederick. It recommended zoning land immediately adjacent to both sides of I-270 mostly south of Clarksburg Road for future employment centers. The areas beyond the town center and the parcels designated for employment uses were to be preserved as open space or farmland.


A map from the 1994 plan showed a "town center" east of I-270 and north of Route 121, parcels just south and west of the town center hugging I-270 where demand for office space and other employment uses was expected to be strong, and a "transit corridor" between I-270 and Route 355. The map also anticipated development of as many as five different "mixed use centers" in Clarksburg along with lower density housing.

In many ways, the plan's approach to development of a town center in Clarksburg prefigured the ideas in Thrive Montgomery 2050, the comprehensive update to the county's land use and planning framework adopted just last year. As this diagram from the 1994 Clarksburg plan shows, the town center was intended to include a mix of uses, a grid of interconnected streets, a wide range of housing types, and site design standards ensuring that buildings would be oriented to the streets rather than set back or arranged in the haphazard way that remains common in suburban development projects:


A diagram from the 1994 plan illustrating some of the design features expected in the future town center

"This is trying to plan in the 1990s, with a 1990s marketplace, for a world that is years out into the future," Lyn Coleman, the Montgomery Planning Department staffer who supervised the drafting of the plan, told The Washington Post in 1991.


Coleman may have been more right than anyone could have known at the time, as many of the concepts in the Clarksburg plan would not be considered out of place in a planning document drafted today. But would they work in Clarksburg in 1994 at the scale and densities that residents and their elected leaders were prepared to accept?


Staging, infrastructure financing, and water quality


The difficult balance between encouraging enough development to support a transit-oriented town center while adding capacity for future office parks while protecting nearby streams from degradation was further complicated by the Plan's inclusion of staging rules that required a series of conditions to be met before planned development could proceed. The staging rules deferred a decision on development in most of the Ten Mile Creek watershed in order to await resolution of water quality concerns. This area, designated as "Stage 4" in the plan, includes parcels east of I-270 that were intended to be part of the town center and land west of I-270 north of Route 121 that was designated as a receiving area for development rights transferred from farms in the agricultural reserve.


The staging element of the Clarksburg master plan deferred a decision on developing most of the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

The plan also called attention to the "fiscal implications of land use policies and rules." This focus on making sure that roads and other public infrastructure would be funded by private development led to the adoption of a novel set of payments and fees to implement the plan that would go beyond the impact fees applied to development in other parts of the county.


All told, the plan contemplated housing for up to 43,000 people with 20,000 jobs in an area that was home to home to about 1,500 people when the plan was adopted in 1994. The town center was planned for up to 2,600 homes and about half a million square feet of commercial development; the plan area as a whole was expected to see somewhere between 8.6 million and 10.3 million square feet of employment and retail uses.


This table from the 1994 plan shows how much development is allowed in each part of Clarksburg

While the overall zoning envelope for the area covered by the plan allowed for less than two dwelling units per acre, the areas abutting future transit stops were allowed 9 to 11 units per acre. The plan also called for construction of new roads, schools, and other public facilities to support the emergence of Clarksburg as a corridor town, if not the final corridor city.


If successful, the plan would help accommodate the county's need for living and working space while preserving the rural character and environmental quality of the surrounding area. Spoiler alert: Many of the plan's goals were not met. The next post will assess what worked, what didn't - and why.

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