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  • Writer's pictureCasey Anderson

Clarksburg: Who's to Blame and What's to be Learned?

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

In "Rashomon," a film set in 11th century Japan, Akira Kurosawa tells the story of the killing of a samurai and an assault on his wife. The samurai, his wife, a bandit and a woodcutter who witnessed the crimes are each shown explaining what happened from their perspective. Each gives an account that places the blame on a different person, and their diverging versions leave the audience convinced that none of their stories is entirely true.

In Clarksburg, as in Rashomon, everyone can agree that things went awry but no one can agree on who or what is responsible

Ask a group of developers, activists, government officials and residents who or what is responsible for the differences between what the Clarksburg master plan recommended in 1994 and what has happened and the answers are likely to be just as difficult to reconcile.

Who Lost Clarksburg?

Greedy developers. Anti-growth activists. Feckless politicians and bureaucrats. The list of prospective villains is long, but none of the candidates is entirely satisfactory. Still, the bill of particulars against each of the putative bad guys provides a useful starting point for assessing where things went wrong and what it means for the future.

The Developers

The case against the developers is superficially appealing, as residents who were led to expect a pedestrian-oriented town center with a variety of neighborhood-serving retail felt Newland and others wanted to build only what would be most profitable without delivering what they had signed up to do. The revelations about unauthorized changes to approved plans fed the perception that developers were allowed to get away with murder.

A video posted on YouTube by Kate Kubit of Elm Street/Third Try in

2020 shows how the retail core of the town center might look

Whatever Newland executives thought when they came to Montgomery County, though, things didn't turn out the way they expected. They sold their rights to the town center project to Third Try for a dollar and left town. Newland's failure ultimately did not change much about what will get built because the master plan put a ceiling on development but the market set the floor, and that floor fell short of the plan's aspirations. The retail core of the town center will not have structured parking or as much commercial space as originally expected. The surface parking generally will be tucked behind buildings, although the grocery store will front onto a parking lot. As for Pulte, the company didn't fare much better than Newland, losing a lawsuit challenging the Ten Mile Creek downzoning and seeing the number of housing units they were allowed to build slashed by two-thirds.

The Activists

I found the arguments about harm to water quality in Ten Mile Creek unpersuasive, but Peterson's proposed outlet project would not have added enough rooftops or visitors to justify much more convenience retail, transit, and other amenities east of I-270. A regional outlet mall also would not have been a particularly good complement to what was supposed to be neo-traditional center, and in any case a residential-only project with 336 homes was later approved for the site. The Pulte project is on the west side of I-270, so while the 2013 downzoning was unhelpful it did not play a major role in compromising the plan's aspirations for the town center, either.

The Politicians

Many people - including some elected officials - argue that a major reason for the Clarksburg plan's results is that inconstant politicians failed to fund needed infrastructure such as transit, roads, parks and school construction. There's no denying that many of these items identified in the plan have been delayed or scaled back.

On the other hand, Clarksburg has received significant public investment. For example, Clarksburg has seen quite a bit of school construction, such as Clarksburg High School (opened in 2006 and expanded in 2014), Hallie Wells Middle School (opened in 2016) and Clarksburg Elementary School (built in 1909 and expanded many times). Parents have complained about overcrowding, but these issues are largely rooted in how Montgomery County Public Schools draws (or declines to draw) boundary lines.

Residents complain that the historic carousel at Wheaton Regional Park has not been returned to Clarksburg as required by the terms of the conveyance of 290 acres of land for what is now Ovid Hazen Wells Recreational Park, but the Parks Department has added picnic pavillions, athletic fields, and other amenities in anticipation of moving the carousel in the next few years

As for transportation, several Clarksburg projects have been diluted or deferred, but even here the record is more mixed than critics acknowledge. The extension of Midcounty Highway, or M-83, an arterial to connect the eastern part of Clarksburg to Gaithersburg, is on the back burner, and Observation Drive is funded in the capital budget but unlikely to be built for several years. Less frequently mentioned is that the county paid to build some of the roads in the plan after abandoning a special tax district designed to fund these projects as originally envisioned, relieving residents of about $1,200 a year in added taxes.

The most glaring omission from Clarksburg's planned public infrastructure, of course, is high-quality transit service, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of the master plan. The Corridor Cities Transitway, once planned as a rail line from Shady Grove to Clarksburg's town center, has been rethought as a combination of bus lines, some with dedicated right-of-way and others sharing lanes with cars, and the timeline for construction is still not clear. Several analyses have cast doubt on whether even a modest upgrade to transit service along the originally planned route would be cost effective.

The absence of transit, like the other missing or scaled back public projects in Clarksburg, reflects the reality that nothing a master plan says can make future elected officials fund a project whose cost seems disproportionate to the number of people it will serve, just as developers will not build things that do not offer a return on their investment.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Developers, activists, and politicians all bear some responsibility but the main villain of the Clarksburg story is the politics of planning and real estate development. The elected officials who approved the 1994 master plan tried to make everyone happy, from the developers who wanted to build another corridor city to the residents who thought the area should remain predominantly rural. The compromise that resulted proved too fragile to sustain, especially because the plan put off the resolution of critical questions about the balance between its goals for development and protection of water quality.

The planners who drafted the plan also deserve some blame. They acknowledged that developing a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town center while preserving the character and environmental quality of the area would be difficult, but they seemed to assume that private demand would be strong enough and public budgets would be large enough to get developers and elected officials to adhere to their recommendations. These assumptions proved to be unrealistic or simply mistaken in many ways.

So what are the lessons to be learned from Clarkburg, and where do we go from here?

Decaf Urbanism Can't Support Major Investments in Amenities and Infrastructure

All of the unbuilt capital budget projects and private amenities in the Clarksburg master plan would benefit from the economies of scale and scope that come with more people, but the one that requires the most residents and workers to support is high-quality transit. No single standard establishes how much residential or commercial density is needed for transit to make sense, but a rail or rapid bus service with dedicated right-of-way would be hard to justify even if developers had built the maximum 9-11 units of housing per acre allowed in areas closest to planned transit stops. It's safe to say that the 3-4 dwellings per acre that have actually been built, including in the planned transit corridor, are well short of the mark.

The new Clarksburg Gateway Sector Plan could help facilitate development on the 204-acre Comsat site, which has been mostly vacant for more than two decades Photo: Lantian Development

Future planning for Clarksburg should zone for denser, taller building types within 1/4 to 1/2 mile of planned transit stops. The town center has mostly been built out at lower densities, and transit-supportive levels of development would not be appropriate or realistic across the entire master plan area. These densities are, however, achievable and desirable in the area under review as part of the Clarksburg Gateway Sector Plan, which focuses on reevaluating the 1994 plan's transit district.

Transit Needs More than Density, and Clarksburg Needs More than Transit

Adequate density is necessary but not sufficient for transit to become a practical and appealing alternative to driving in the upcounty. Better pedestrian and bicycle connections, a diverse mix of uses, and attention to the orientation of buildings in the site planning process are all important contributors. These ideas are in Thrive Montgomery 2050, the county's new comprehensive plan, but even the best ideas in land use and transportation depend on the fine-grained design details of streets, buildings and public spaces.

Roadways under review as part of the Clarksburg Gateway Sector Plan Graphic: Montgomery Planning Department

Transit requires a lot of people living or working close to train or bus stops, but roads are also expensive and require a large base of users to support investment of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. No recent estimates have been developed for M-83, but the price is likely to exceed half a billion dollars. A new interchange to support development of the Comsat site and other properties along I-270 could easily reach the low nine figures.

Planning Should Focus on Adapting to the Future, Not Trying to Predict or Control It

Clarksburg illustrates why plans should help communities prepare for a range of possibilities instead of trying to dictate or forecast a specific outcome, a topic I have discussed elsewhere. The 1994 plan assumed that employers would continue to seek out large office parks along the I-270 corridor, that the area could support enough commercial tenants (including small offices, convenience retail, and particularly grocery stores) for multiple mixed use centers, and that home building would be sufficiently profitable to induce developers to pay for a long list of public infrastructure projects as well as private amenities.

All of these assumptions were reasonable, but all of them turned out to be wrong. A decline in demand for office space in general and exurban office parks in particular undercut the premise that new housing would serve residents who worked at well-paid jobs in the vicinity. Instead, Clarksburg attracted many buyers who wanted new construction at a relatively affordable price, even if it meant commuting to DC or northern Virginia. This in turn made the delays in road and transit funding all the more painful.

While the office market was shrinking and shifting, the shape of retail was also changing. Clarksburg was close to retail centers in Germantown, Gaithersburg, and Urbana, all of which cannibalized demand from the plan area. Grocery chains went through a period of disruption, and regulatory conditions in the plan made signing up grocery tenants more difficult. The Great Recession disrupted the housing market; the costs of land, skilled labor, and materials went up; and wage and job growth never fully recovered.

None of these changes were predictable in the sense that politicians or planners should have seen them coming, but as Donald Rumsfeld might have pointed out, planners should assume that things will go wrong in unpredictable ways. The Clarksburg plan would have have benefitted from fewer conditions aimed at controlling the precise pace and location of development and more flexibility to respond to market conditions.

Everything Might Be Good on a Bagel But Not in a Land Use Plan

When the government tries to accomplish too many things at the same time the likelihood that none of them will be done well goes up. Among many examples from the Clarksburg plan was the decision to place the town center adjacent to the historic district, consisting of 20 buildings along a short stretch of Route 355 north of Route 121. The town center could have been located in any number of places but the drafters of the plan wanted to re-establish what had once been the center of Clarksburg while also facilitating extension of public water and sewer service to the handful of properties in the historic district.

The Leonidas Willson House, built in 1790, is among the historic properties on Route 355 next to Clarksburg's planned town center Photo: Montgomery Planning Department

Putting the town center next to the historic district further limited the development potential on properties close to the planned transit stop and retail core. Together with the impervious surface limits imposed by the 2013 downzoning, historic district restrictions also have the effect of making construction of infrastructure in the district extraordinarily expensive. For instance, a 2,500-foot of sidewalk along Route 355 through the district will cost $6.46 million, including the price of an archaeological study that delayed the project for two years and unearthed no evidence of any significant archaeological resources. And while historic district properties now have access to water and sewer service, the plan's recommendation for a bypass to divert traffic around the district remains unfulfilled.

Where Does this Leave the Residents of Clarksburg?

Despite everything that has gone wrong, Clarksburg is not a bad place to live. The gap between what was envisioned and what was delivered is tremendously frustrating, but as the upcounty continues to grow that gap will get easier to fill. Elm Street seems to be making progress on the scaled-back town center retail and amenities, and life sciences tenants may yet generate demand for new commercial development in the area.

As for the practice of planning, the main lesson may be to underpromise - and to be more careful about making any promises at all. Planners cannot make anyone build anything, and the politicians who vote to approve a plan cannot bind the elected officials who come after them. That doesn't mean long-range plans are worthless, but they do run the risk of setting unrealistic expectations when they are treated as a set of promises, if not a guarantee.

If you care about Clarksburg, I know that the Planning Department staffers who are working on the new Gateway plan, Angelica Gonzalez and Jamey Pratt, would like to hear from you. It's easy to be cynical about the politics of land use planning, especially after everything that has happened - and not happened - in Clarksburg, but these people are sincerely interested in helping the community make its way to a better future.

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3 Kommentare

14. Juli 2023

Up until a few years ago, all transportation impact taxes collected on new homes in Clarkisburg were allocated to transportation projects in Clarksburg. Currently these taxes are now available for use throughout the county. The educational part of the impact taxes collected in Clarksburg are still allocateed to schools for Clarksburg. Also, I believe that the state also contributes to all new schools.

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17. Juli 2023
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At first, impact taxes paid by the new homes was allocated to Clarksburg Transportation Projects and countywide education projects. in the last few years the council changed it so Clarksburg Transportation impact taxes were able to be used for countywide projects. the initial impact tax was higher than elsewhere in the county. when it was changed, they lowered the impact tax rate.

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