How it got this way

Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, 1950. From the District of Columbia Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.


Master plans are sacred and everyone has a stake in forming a county’s plan. That is what Royce Hanson said he found when he researched Montgomery County’s original planning.

Hanson, the former county board planning chair, is presenting a speaker series on how politics shaped county planning. The series is entitled “A Once and Future County: Lessons on How Planning Politics Shaped Montgomery County.” Each month’s session has a different panel of regional planning experts.


Typical late 19th century Montgomery County farmhouse, Nettie Hawkins House, Etchison, c. 1917 view, Hawkins family collection.

The county’s planning department held the first of five monthly presentations Nov. 12, “Planners, Politicians and How Montgomery County Got This Way,” discussed the origins of the Montgomery County general plan.

In that session Hanson explained the political origins of the current Montgomery County general plan, emphasizing that planners and politicians do not always think alike.

B&O OldTrainStation_1941

B&O station, 1941. This Silver Spring train station was demolished and in 1946 and replaced by the current station on about the same site. M-NCPPC Archives

The county amended the general plan a number of times, but the original county plan of “wedges and corridors” dates back to 1964, according to the Montgomery County Planning department.

Panel member Gus Bauman, former chair of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said corridors are the interstates and surrounding development, while wedges are agricultural preserves in rural areas.

The plan created wedges for “no development, or very low development, and then corridors where they had massive development,” Bauman said.

MC Winter Series1

The Nov. 12  panel discussion. Photo by Teresa Lo.

According to the original 1964 general plan goals, “land should be treated as one of our most precious possessions, using efficiently what we need for accommodating expected urban growth, and conserving the rest of the unforeseeable future.”

The radial-corridor concept, wedges and corridors, promoted massive development in the corridors.

The corridors preserved wedges as “large open spaces for the ‘change of pace’ and recreational opportunities needed by present and future generations,” according to the 1964 general plan.

Bethesda-Wisc Ave-1942-from roof of 7434 Wisc Ave  facing NNE

Bethesda business district in 1942, view of Wisconsin Avenue looking north toward Old Georgetown Road intersection, M-NCPPC Archives.

“It is reasonable, I think, to expect that some decisions proclaimed as beneficial when they’re made might be regarded less kindly by future generations,” Hanson said. “By the same token, decisions that right-thinking people regarded as grave errors when they were made may come to be treasured assets.”

Hanson said in his conclusion, “Land uses are sticky things, and so are land use institutions. Since we’re stuck with them we probably should make the best use of them that our respective logics allow.”

Silver Theater and Shopping Center

The streamlined Silver Theater and Shopping Center opened in 1938 to serve a burgeoning population that came to Silver Spring in the New Deal era. 1942 view, M-NCPPC archives

Hanson is finishing his book about Montgomery County planning politics, “Suburb: Planning Politics and the Public Interest in Montgomery County, 1910-2010,” and expects publication sometime next year.

You can watch Hanson’s presentation, “Planners, Politicians and How Montgomery Got this Way,” and the panel discussion here.


Silver Spring Theater, M-NCPPC Archives

The next session in the speaker series, “Retrofitting the Suburbs: From Friendship Heights to White Flint,” will take place on Dec. 10, and will discuss strategic land use in Montgomery County.

The session begins at 6 p.m. at the Montgomery County Planning Department headquarters at 8787 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

You can view the entire 1964 General Plan here.

1942 Bethesda_Wisconsin Ave

Bethesda business district in 1942, view of Wisconsin Avenue looking north toward Old Georgetown Road intersection, M-NCPPC Archives


Montgomery County Planning Department’s Winter Speakers Series, “A Once and Future County: Lessons on How Planning Politics Shaped Montgomery County.”

• Session two on December 10 will address “Retrofitting the Suburbs: From Friendship Heights to White Flint,” tracing the evolution of strategic land use decisions in key areas of the county. Discussion will focus on the influence of residential and commercial interests, the County Planning Board and its staff, County Council and County Executive, and changing approaches to planning.  Panelists include the following experts: Julie Davis, Douglas Duncan, Evan Goldman.

• Session three on January 14, 2015, “Trials and Errors of Corridor Cities Planning,” focuses on the planning politics and development in the Rockville-Gaithersburg area; the challenges of a new town in Germantown; and the planning and development of Clarksburg.

• Session four on February 11, 2015, “Creating and Sustaining the County’s Agricultural Reserve,” traces the 30-year effort to protect the rural landscape and the working farms of upper Montgomery County. The technical planning, legal and political challenges that were overcome to establish the Agricultural Reserve in 1980 and sustain a working landscape against continuing efforts to compromise its integrity will be discussed.

• Session five on March 11, 2015, “Hunting the Snark: Growth Policy and the Public Interest,” evaluates the effects of the 40-year evolution of county growth policy on development patterns. It will discuss the institutional structure of planning in Montgomery County for effective and democratically accountable land use policy.