Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ April 2014

Considering the Potential Environmental Impacts of the Development Planned Around White Oak

By Carole A. Barth

As you may know, there is a new draft White Oak Science Gateway master plan.  This plan calls for 25 million square feet of new commercial development and 8,600 additional residential units.  This is equal to the size of 11 Wheaton Plazas.  (Another way to look at this is that it will be twice as much urban area as downtown Silver Spring, but with no Metro service).

While some redevelopment in the area is desirable, I personally question the need for such mega-development.  There is already lots of unused density in the current zoning/master plan, as well as empty office/commercial spaces stretching from Burtonsville down Route 29 into and around downtown Silver Spring.  That’s why many developers are converting planned commercial projects into housing (condos or apartments).

Still, this plan is being promoted as a job generator for the Eastern County (although it will not be zoned as an employment center zone).  Instead, the bulk of it will be mixed use (CR or Commercial Residential zone), with the exact mix to be determined later at the developer’s pleasure.  Lack of clarity on the commercial/residential mix makes it harder to design appropriate Environmental Site Design (ESD) facilities for managing stormwater.  In my experience, commercial and residential property managers have different capabilities when it comes to maintenance and, to some extent, the pollutant load varies (e.g., more commercial area — such as fast food restaurants — often means higher trash generation.)

I understand that these projects will need to meet current stormwater management requirements, and some currently untreated impervious cover will be treated as a result, but, given the massive scale, I don’t think we can assume that this will be a net improvement for water quality.

Although current ESD technology is far more effective than the old grey infrastructure, it is not good enough to entirely offset unlimited development on a site.  To put it another way, preservation of existing vegetation and soils — coupled with rigorous application of ESD at the conceptual design stage — can come close to preserving the original hydrologic regime, but too much development on a given site will inevitably impact water quality.

Moreover, I don’t think we can assume there will be optimal application of ESD given that environmentalists and neighborhoods have had issues with how the “ESD to the Maximum Extent Possible” standards have been implemented in recent developments (e.g., Chelsea Court).

In addition, we need to remember the Anacostia Trash Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL, or pollution diet) which requires that the County prevent 621.6 pounds of trash per day — 226,884 pounds per year — from being discharged through its storm drain system.  This one proposed development could easily overwhelm any gains made in trash reduction elsewhere in the watershed.

Finally, I also wonder how much of the County’s “development capacity” this proposal will eat up.  After all, both the Anacostia and Bay TMDL limits, once reached, must be maintained into the future.  Permitting this development may mean development elsewhere will be constrained.  To date, the Planning Department has done only the most cursory environmental review, however, so we will have to look to the County Council and the Department of Environmental Protection to address these concerns.

The Council had scheduled work sessions in the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee this week, but it sent the plan back to Park and Planning after citizens discovered major errors in the traffic study.  It is likely that these errors resulted in an underestimation of the proposed development’s impact on traffic.

Because the Council usually spends April working on the County’s operating budget, it may not consider the plan until June.  Thus the issue might not come before the Council until after the County Council primary election.

In any case, let’s hope that whenever it does get considered, there is a thorough analysis and open discussion of stormwater issues.    ■

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