School Capacity Needs Take Center Stage in White Flint, Rock Spring Plan Review

Parents push for growth documents to include language on school sites


Published:

VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT

The drafted Rock Spring growth plan could bring as many as 423 new students to the crowded schools of the Walter Johnson cluster. Previously approved projects in the area could yield another 135.

The drafted White Flint 2 Sector Plan could add 690 more students, and another 149 could arrive courtesy of the drafted Grosvenor-Strathmore plan, according to county estimates.

Concerned parents in Bethesda and Rockville are wondering where the new students will go.

“[T]here’s no place to put them,” PTA representative Wendy Calhoun told County Council members last month.

County Council members, who are considering all three long-range growth plans at once, often stress that many new homes will take years or even decades to appear, and some projects might never get off the ground. However, they agree with parent advocates and Montgomery County Public Schools officials that the plans should say something about the need for new schools.

Council President Roger Berliner said adding classroom space should take top priority in the master and sector plans now up for discussion. In recent weeks, he has left the Rock Spring Master Plan in the drawer, refusing to put it on the agenda because elected officials hadn’t agreed on language about school site acquisition.

“I was not going to let any of these master plans go before the council until we resolved the issue to the satisfaction of the community,” he said in a Friday phone interview.

Berliner and parent advocates initially wanted to pinpoint specific locations as potential school sites, as the county has done in the past. Other council members disagreed with naming particular properties.

Now, consensus has formed around an approach that proponents say will give planning officials more flexibility to negotiate with landowners. The language that council members are expected to insert in all three plans states that every property undergoing development review should be evaluated for a potential school site.

Calhoun, coordinator for the PTA groups in the Walter Johnson cluster, argued that the White Flint 2 plan should identify the Montrose Crossing area and the Wilgus and Willco properties west of Pike & Rose as potential school locations. The region is running out of big, empty tracts of land, and officials should pay attention to the ones that remain, she argued.

“This is our best chance in decades to get a 10- to 12-acre parcel of land, large enough for a middle school. With the rate at which land is being sold and developed in our part of the county, that chance might not come again,” she said last month in her testimony to the council.

Education officials have asked the council to dedicate elementary and middle school sites in the White Flint 2 and Rock Springs plans.

“While we cannot know with certainty how many students ultimately will live in this area, we do know that it is highly likely that we will need the ability to implement multiple facility planning and growth management options to respond to a probable scenario of continuing explosive enrollment growth that exceeds our current facility inventory,” a September letter signed by Superintendent Jack Smith and school board President Michael Durso stated.

But after weeks of working with council members and county staff members, parent advocates now support plan language that does not name individual properties and instead asks planners to evaluate all sites, Calhoun said Friday.

Essie McGuire, executive director for the MCPS office of the chief operating officer, said Friday that the school system agrees.

The first White Flint plan, adopted in 2010, pointed to White Flint Mall property for a possible elementary school. Targeting a specific location this way in a master plan enables county planners to reserve a school site for three years if the property owner pursues a development project, Planning Department Director Gwen Wright said.

However, it can tie the department’s hands, in some cases.

“If a plan is very specific and says, ‘This is where the school shall be,’ then we really are limited in our ability to negotiate with different owners,” she said.

This becomes especially problematic when those designated properties sit idle for years, out of the county’s reach until landowners decide to develop. Meanwhile, the planning department can’t take advantage of opportunities in places that are going through the land development process, Wright said.

Wright said more flexibility within the master plans gives the planning department freedom to negotiate deals such as one recently struck with developers at the WMAL site near Greentree Road in Bethesda. In that case, Toll Brothers agreed to donate about 4.3 acres of land for a possible school in exchange for a credit against county development fees, she said.

County Council member Nancy Floreen said including more open-ended wording in the plans avoids singling out one property owner. She’d also like to see MCPS officials take advantage of other properties they have in and around the cluster.

“There is a need for school capacity,” she said. “The challenge is that we’re not the ones who make this decision about where to locate schools. It’s the board of education. So the best we can do is put into place policies and procedures that will facilitate their decision-making.”

McGuire agreed with Floreen that closed schools and other land owned by MCPS are useful, but said each of them has its own complications. Some facilities are rented to private schools or nonprofit agencies, for instance. The school district likes to have as many options as possible for meeting capacity needs, she said.

The Rock Spring plan, which covers 535 acres around the Rock Spring office park and the Westfield Montgomery mall, is set to come before the full council for a work session Tuesday. The White Flint 2 proposal, which applies to about 460 acres around Rockville Pike and Montrose Road, is up for discussion in a council committee Monday.

The Council earlier this week held a public hearing on the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro Area Minor Master Plan, which encompasses 117 acres around the Metro station.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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