ROCKVILLE—The Montgomery County Council heard the semi-annual report on the status of the county’s Planning Board.
The Planning Board, led by Chair Casey Anderson, focused their report on the status of the parks department and updates to the General Plan which has revitalization efforts outlined for different areas in Montgomery County.
A significant aspect of upkeep for the Planning Board and the Parks Department is the maintenance of the trail systems in the area.
Montgomery County is crisscrossed with trails for the public to walk, jog or bike along. In total the county has about 245 miles of trail, much of which is unpaved or natural ground, according to the report.
“Trail usage data and surveys continue to tell us that our trails are among our most highly utilized and desired facilities,” said Michael Riley, who serves as Montgomery County Parks Director. “They serve so many different purposes from community building to physical fitness.”
Riley reported that a major project currently in the works is the Upper Paint Branch Trail plan which will create a sustainable multi-use trail network in an area that has fewer trails available.
“There was a low level of service in East County,” Riley said. “The trail will provide links to parks community destinations and a larger countywide trail network.”
It will also provide access to natural areas for people to enjoy. The project is in the implementation phase, Riley said.
Safety on the trails that cross areas of roadway shared with cars is also a significant concern.
“We’ve identified 121 locations where park trails cross roads. We’re able with our current funding to improve about ten intersections per year,” Riley said.
According to Riley, the trails have their own Vision Zero project that aims to eliminate deaths and injuries that are preventable by the design and laws of the roadway. Often that means redesigning streets so that pedestrians are more visible or lowering the speed limit for cars.
“I still meet regularly with state highway (officials), DOT and county police about the Henson crossing at a very small road where unfortunately we had experienced fatalities,” Riley said. “It is much improved but there is still more to be done, and I’m not going to quit on that until I believe that we’ve done absolutely everything we can do to make that intersection as safe as possible.”
There was also another fatality on the Little Falls Parkway where the Capital Crescent Trail crosses a major roadway.
A success in recent years for the Planning Board was the installation of the John and Joan O’Rourke Greenhouse at the Brookside Gardens, according to Riley.
“Greenhouses aren’t really sexy, but this is a really integral part of the infrastructure. It’s going to enable us to grow a diverse array of more than 20,000 plants each year, and it includes 10,000 square feet of indoor growing area with four separate climate zones,” Riley said. “It also has a heart system to harvest rainwater from the roof to water plants, and it’s all very high tech.”
The greenhouse was completed in fall of 2018 and was funded with a donation from Joan O’Rourke who has been a longtime volunteer in the garden.
Councilmember Gabe Albornoz highlighted other areas for possible improvement in the parks. He suggested things like making parks more attractive to millennials by partnering with breweries and the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control to enhance the night economy in the county.
“We can look at activating our parks in a little more intentional way,” he said. “Howard County has a very successful wine in the parks event, so I think there are opportunities there for us to enhance our parks and night economy too.”
Another opportunity suggested by Albornoz that could improve the parks is making changes to the existing tennis courts. A project like this would require some construction.
“We have a number of tennis facilities that are no longer accessed as much as they used to be, and we’ve got people playing football and soccer on these tennis courts,” he said.
Albornoz suggested changing these courts into futsal or basketball courts.
“I think we can be more intentional moving forward about conversations of amenities like that to acknowledge the shifting and changing use of our community,” Albornoz said.
This idea was supported by Councilmember Hans Riemer who felt that small soccer courts that would replace tennis courts in urban areas would bring more accessibility to children looking for a place to play.
“I think there is a real need to create opportunities for kids to practice their skills,” he said. “This is a type of infrastructure or facility, I think that can help kids continue to have the opportunity to practice and develop their skill even in a city setting.”
Riley closed the Planning Board’s report by noting the funding levels allocated for Parks and Planning in the County Executive’s proposed budget for 2020. There is a 0.8 percent increase for the coming fiscal year earmarked for the departments.
“On the surface, it doesn’t sound that bad, but that is not even adequate to cover what we expect we’ll be required to compensate our employees,” Riley said.
In the coming weeks Riley said, the Planning Board will be talking with the council to find assistance before the council takes its final actions on the budget before June 1.