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MoCo Planning Department Tapped for Two National Awards

The Montgomery County Planning Department has won two prestigious national awards from the American Planning Association. Planning Director Gwen Wright will accept the Planning Landmark Award for the Agricultural Reserve and the Best Practice Award for the Bicycle Stress Map on May 8 at the association’s national convention in New York City.

“These awards represent national recognition for our planning efforts, both past and present, in Montgomery County,” said Wright. “We are thrilled that the planning profession understands the value of our Agricultural Reserve as a model of land conservation and our Bicycle Stress Map as a tool for developing safe bikeways that can be adapted to other jurisdictions.”

The APA Planning Landmark Award recognizes a planning initiative at least 25 years old that is historically significant and initiated a new direction in planning. The Montgomery County Planning Department was the only recipient of the APA Planning Landmark Award in 2017.

Montgomery County’s 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, established in 1980, is significant as one of the most famous, most studied and most emulated programs of its kind in the United States. Counties around the country, in states from California to Connecticut, have followed the Agricultural Reserve model and adopted density transfer tools to preserve farmland and promote agriculture.

The APA awards jury recognized the Ag Reserve’s success at preserving more than a quarter of Montgomery County as a contiguous rural area, while providing an economic benefit to farmers by allowing the sale of density through a transferable development rights program.

The Agricultural Reserve was conceived with the Agricultural and Rural Open Space Master Plan in 1980 to prevent sprawl, protect farmland and manage growth. This effort was initiated by former Planning Director Richard Tustian and former Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson, and supported by the County Council.

Key to the success of the Agricultural Reserve was the creation of the Rural Density Transfer Zone. Whereas new residential development had been allowed at the rate of one house per 5 acres, the new zone lowered the density to one house per 25 acres. The creation of a Transferable Development Right allows landowners to recover the value of equity in their land without having to sell it. A TDR can be sold to someone who wants to build in designated areas of the county at a greater density than would otherwise be allowed in the zone. To date, about 10,000 TDRs have been created and 7,000 sold. These transactions help farmers weather the vicissitudes of farming, while also letting developers meet the growing demand for more housing in areas served by existing infrastructure.

In 2008, the Building Lot Termination Program was established to further preserve agricultural land. Before this program, farmers had been encouraged to keep one TDR per 25 acres so that they could build a house on the property. Creating a BLT easement takes that last right away, meaning the parcel will remain completely undeveloped. The BLT easement provides additional compensation to landowners who agree to forgo all of their development rights and terminate the waste disposal system associated with the lot.

These tools, along with a sustained commitment to agriculture, have helped retain 540 farms that contribute millions of dollars to Montgomery County's economy. Of the 93,000 acres in the Agricultural Reserve, 63,493 acres are devoted to farming. The Agricultural Reserve is a notable achievement in an area so close to the nation's capital, where development pressure remains intense.

The APA Best Practice Award is for a specific planning tool and innovative planning method. The Montgomery County Planning Department was one of several organizations to win this award.

The Best Practice Award recognizes the digital map developed by the Planning Department to support its data-driven Bicycle Master Plan, which is anticipated to be completed in 2018. The Bicycle Stress Map is a publicly accessible tool located on the Montgomery County Planning Department website at www.mcatlas.org/bikestress. It shows the stress levels encountered when bicycling in different areas of Montgomery Count, from very low stress (appropriate for children) to very high stress (appropriate for only about one percent of adults). Videos linked to the map explain the experience of bicycling in areas with different traffic stress conditions.

The Bicycle Stress Map was launched in April 2016 and has been widely embraced by decision makers and the public for highlighting how difficult it is for the average person to travel by bicycle in Montgomery County. While most adults could bicycle on 78 percent of the road miles in the county, only about 20 percent of trips can be completed on a low-stress bicycling network. Creating the map required the Planning Department to assign a level of stress experienced by bicyclists on more than 3,500 miles of roads and trails in the County. The goal of the new master plan is to provide additional bicycle infrastructure that will make low stress bicycle routes the norm, not the exception.

In honoring the map, the APA recognized that this tool can used by other jurisdictions to evaluate bicycle routes and build support for new bikeways. Already, the Montgomery County Planning Department has been contacted by planners throughout the country, from Delaware to California, who are interested in preparing similar tools.

Caption: Maryland Route 109 (Old Hundred Road) at Interstate 270 near Hyattstown. By Vpescanlar

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