Real Estate Development Always At Issue in Montgomery County Elections

UPDATE: For more on economic development and growth in Montgomery County, past and future, please see my post, “Contemplating Life Inside An Economic Engine,” at the TheSeventhState political blog,  http://www.theseventhstate.com

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Most Americans outside the beltway* are justified in thinking that the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is a one-company town, and that company is the U.S. government with its myriad contractors.

But here in Montgomery County, MD, the industry with political clout, decade after decade, is real estate development. It’s always a lucrative proposition. Start with some relatively inexpensive farmland, rough-in a few roads and water and sewer, build housing, and sell the added value for a tidy profit. Styles change — ticky-tacky ranchers, split-levels, townhouses, McMansions, luxury apartments or condos — but the concept remains the same.

An example of the modern residential construction style, the four-story rectangle with pitched roof. It allows somewhat denser development than the three-story garden apartments of the 20th  century.

An example of the modern residential construction style, the four-story rectangle with pitched roof. It allows somewhat denser development than the three-story garden apartments of the 20th century. This one is in Germantown.

Development has been a political issue in every local election for as long as I can remember. The slogans are short and sweet: No Growth, Slow Growth, Managed Growth, Smart Growth.

Sometimes the focus appears to be on related construction, such as adequate schools, highways, pubic transit, even parks and open space.**  The undercurrent is always development. Some recent twists have been fill-in development and redevelopment.

Election 2014 will be more of the same. If anything, the focus on development has been reinvigorated by the recent debate regarding Ten Mile Creek and Clarksburg. Bill Turque of The Washington Post has a concise story today highlighting the influence of developers on Montgomery County local politics. It’s a little bit “inside baseball,” but it might be a good introduction for voters new to the area.

The proximate subject is the Democratic primary contest for the District 1 County Council seat between Roger Berliner and Dutchy Trachtenberg.  The tantalizing story is a political fund-raiser associated with the development community calling the Sierra Club “the most vicious anti-development, anti-growth organization in the country.” For the record, the Sierra Club endorsed Berliner over Trachtenberg.

The “most vicious anti-development” trash talk is only a passing tempest in a long campaign season. But for any new MoCo voter, the story pulls back the curtain on the role of political contributions by real estate development interests. Montgomery county is home to a million people. Candidates for County Executive and the nine County Council seats face about a million pounds of pressure from all sorts of interests, with developers supplying much of the tonnage. Developer interests, as might be expected, are usually at odds with environmental concerns.

A secondary insight from the story is the role of candidate endorsements by influential interest groups such as the Sierra Club. Every imaginable interest group throughout the state is pestering candidates with questionnaires, with endorsements often forthcoming for the right answers. However, endorsements are sometimes often made in arbitrary fashion behind closed doors. In many cases, endorsements go almost automatically to incumbents, rather than challengers.

— John Hayden

* Maybe it’s time to retire “inside the beltway” and replace it with “inside the InterCounty Connector.”

** In the early days of suburbia, country club golf courses were often cited as “open space.”

Any thoughts on the wild world of nearly unlimited campaign money?

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Filed under Democracy, Housing, Maryland

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