By Neal Earley
CHEVY CHASE — Development was the key issue in one of the last Montgomery County Executive candidate forums before Tuesday’s elections.
For voters in the Friendship Heights area of Chevy Chase, how each of the candidates is going to guide their neighborhood through rising density, increasingly tall buildings, overcrowded schools and traffic congestion weighed heavily on their minds.
For Democratic candidate and Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, getting developers to pay more for the knock-on effects of building more is a key plank in his campaign platform. Elrich said he wants to change the way the County taxes developers by creating special taxing districts as there are in Northern Virginia.
“I want to change the way we collect money from development,” Elrich said.
Many audience members submitted questions at Thursday night’s debate, moderated by Bethesda Magazine Contributing Editor Lou Peck, focused on development, a key issue for many voters in Chevy Chase and Bethesda.
Independent candidate and County Council member Nancy Floreen, who chairs the County Council Planning, Housing Economic Development Committee, said development is a key part of solving the issues of the high cost of living in the County, saying that to lower rent prices, County officials need to let developers build more.
“If you ask any housing expert, the answer to more affordability is more housing,” Floreen said.
As part of her platform, Floreen has said she wants Montgomery County to have a four-year university, to streamline the procurement process that will bring savings to the County budget and to fix the area’s traffic woes by creating a regional transportation authority.
In response to Floreen’s statement about housing, Elrich attacked that remark as not even a “truism,” saying that more housing does not necessarily mean more affordability, while Floreen said that Elrich has attacked the County’s development rules, while often voting for them on the Council.
While Elrich contended that developers need to pay more, Floreen said the focus of the next County Executive should be figuring out a way to change the perception that Montgomery County is an unfriendly place for businesses.
Republican Robin Ficker, an attorney and political activist, has continued to campaign on a platform of change, saying that his two opponents, who have both served on the County Council for more than a decade each, cannot bring a true change in County leadership.
On the question of what he would do about development, Ficker balked, saying instead he is the only candidate who is not bought by donations from either developers or unions.
Ficker said the main issue, the issue that begets all others, is the County’s high taxes, something he promised that he would not raise if elected.
“The issue in this election is not development; the issue in this election is tax increases,” Ficker said. “The tax increases they have voted for. I am not going to increase your taxes for the next four years.”
On transportation, Ficker said that the County needs to build more roads, like the long-planned M-83, a proposed four-lane highway that would connect Germantown to Clarksburg. Ficker said that Floreen and Elrich, who live in Garrett Park and Takoma Park, respectively, are disconnected from the County’s traffic issues, and that he as a Republican could better work with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to fix congestion on I-270.
When Elrich proposed bus rapid transit as a solution to fixing some traffic congestion issues, Ficker response with calling the plan “Big Robbery Today,” saying people won’t leave their cars to take the bus. Ficker then asked the audience to raise their hands if they took the bus in the last month; most of the people there raised their hands.
“We need to make Metro more reliable. So he [Elrich] has a new toy, a bus rapid transit system, while our Metro isn’t working,” Ficker said.
No matter the question Thursday night, Ficker turned his answers to attacking Elrich and Floreen, who he said were the “two deciding votes” on an 8.7-percent increase in property taxes. When the issue about how the County will handle the building of Amazon’s second headquarters to a proposed spot at White Flint, Ficker proclaimed that executives from the Seattle-based tech giant won’t want to move to the County if Elrich or Floreen is in charge.
Floreen argued her platform of continuing to build more will reduce the cost of housing, expand the County’s tax base and make Montgomery County a more attractive place for businesses to locate. Floreen called her platform a moderate one, between two extremes.
“I think that the County needs a more centrist leader, someone who has worked with all sides of the equation,” Floreen said. “Someone who has a vision and proven leadership skills. Someone who is not extreme.”
Elrich has contended that he’s been mischaracterized by both the media and his opponents.
While he has numerous endorsements from progressive Political Action Committees and unions, Elrich contends that he is not an ideologue. Even on one of his key issues, development, Elrich said that he is not anti-growth, just that the growth should be managed better.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t grow, I’m saying you should grow right,” Elrich said.