A yard sign in suburban Woodside equates Thrive 2050 with virtual annexation. (M Colkitt/最新蜜桃影像)

Thrive Montgomery 2050 reimagines MoCo鈥檚 suburbia

The county鈥檚 ambitious land-use proposal ignites community division.

Montgomery County is teeming with heated debate over a proposal seeking to address racial and socioeconomic justice through land use. As currently sits with the County Council and County Executive pending final review, community tension builds.

Thrive tackles issues ranging from housing and transportation to climate control. Advocates have described it as a visionary document that will provide guidance and framework for the county鈥檚 growth over the next 30 years.

However, one aspect of the plan is generating a disproportionate amount of heat 鈥 the potential for up-zoning in suburban communities.

Current county policy dictates that certain neighborhoods can only consist of single-family detached homes. 鈥淚f you鈥檙e not somebody who can afford a single-family detached home, you鈥檙e not allowed access to that community,鈥 explained Jane Lyons.

Lyons is the Maryland Advocacy Manager for聽, a nonprofit focused on promoting inclusive, accessible communities in the Washington metropolitan area. Thrive has been Lyons鈥 main focus over the past two years.

Right now, the average single-family detached home in Montgomery County costs . Home values by more than 12% over the past year. Meanwhile, the county population continues to rise, with the showing significant increases in Black, Latino and Asian populations.

Local economist Gray Kimbrough pointed out that while the county has had a majority-minority population for over a decade 鈥 meaning the majority of residents identify as a racial minority 鈥 57% of single-family detached homes are still white-owned.

Census data shows a steep decline in non-Hispanic white MoCo residents, yet they still represent the majority of detached single-family homeowners in the county. (Courtesy of Gray Kimbrough)

Thrive supporters suggest that this data shows an urgent need for increased affordable housing to accommodate a more racially and economically diverse population. On the need for affordable housing, opponents of Thrive agree.

鈥淣obody is going to say there鈥檚 not a problem with affordability,鈥 said Jamison Adcock, Vice President of the and Thrive critic. 鈥淚t鈥檚 long been expensive. There are things that can and probably should be done to address that.鈥

Clashing community voices

Adcock and others maintain that while its goals are admirable, Thrive is an 鈥渋ncomplete鈥 solution. 鈥淚 would give it a 鈥楧鈥 if I were a teacher and a student handed it in as an assignment,鈥 Adcock said.

鈥淭hrive is nothing more than an empty folder,鈥 agreed Cary Lamari, an Aspen Hill resident and outspoken Thrive critic. 鈥淲e end up with density. We end up with environmental degradation. We end up with the displacement of members of our county.鈥

Lamari fears the county will not address his concerns until well after the proposal is voted into place. He and others point to a need for more community engagement before action can be taken.

Silver Spring resident Mike English said he and other Thrive advocates openly acknowledge zoning alone will not be enough to sustain the county鈥檚 growth. 鈥淚t鈥檚 necessary, not sufficient,鈥 he said.

English is a volunteer member of the steering committee for , a grassroots group organized by Coalition for Smarter Growth. He has also written for local news outlets addressing aspects of Thrive.

Thrive’s website outreach efforts beginning in December 2018, listing dozens of special events, public hearings, presentations and Zoom meetings open to the public.

Nevertheless, Adcock says, 鈥渢here鈥檚 no listening鈥 when concerns are presented at these meetings. 鈥淲hen someone raises a point, they call it myths,鈥 he said.

Dan Reed, a from Silver Spring, raised concern about such attempts to downplay the county鈥檚 tireless community outreach on Thrive. 鈥淸The county] held over 160 meetings, had materials in eight languages and specifically targeted people of color, renters and young people,鈥 he said. 鈥淭o dismiss this outreach as 鈥榩erformance art鈥 says input from these communities doesn鈥檛 matter.鈥

Progressive-inspired yard sign in Montgomery County
Countless progressive-themed yard signs line the quiet neighborhood of Woodside, but some residents call such decor performative. English likes to say Montgomery County needs to “put your zoning where your progressivism is.” (M. Colkitt / 最新蜜桃影像)

English also reiterated that Thrive itself does not directly change zoning. While critics like Lamari fear the immediate upzoning of their neighborhoods, English said in reality, a public outreach process would have to occur before any zoning changes are implemented.

Reckoning with history

Montgomery County shifted its land-use policies beginning around the 1960s, creating zoning restrictions that still affect housing trends today. 鈥淎s soon as explicitly racist zoning came under attack, single-family home zoning increased,鈥 English said. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 not a coincidence.鈥

Lyons agreed, explaining, 鈥淭he way we built up the suburbs in the U.S. following World War II through today resulted in the economic and racial segregation that we have in Montgomery County.鈥

Thrive would allow the county to up-zone suburban areas where previously only single-family detached homes could be built, in the hopes of encouraging greater diversity in these neighborhoods. Lyons said Thrive envisions 鈥渁 different kind of suburb鈥 鈥 one more walkable, accessible and affordable to people of all backgrounds.

鈥淚f you only allow density to be where it always has been,鈥 English said, 鈥測ou鈥檙e keeping everyone where they always have been 鈥 and that has obvious issues.鈥

Quantifying diversity

Thrive opponents often point to the county鈥檚 existing diversity as a reason why further change isn鈥檛 needed. 鈥淭he saying is, 鈥業t ain鈥檛 broke, don鈥檛 fix it,鈥欌 said Silver Spring homeowner Elizabeth Joyce. 鈥淲hy are we fixing something that ain鈥檛 broke?鈥

鈥淲hen I think about the section of Chevy Chase I live in, it鈥檚 incredibly diverse,鈥 said Thrive critic Stacey Band. 鈥淢y daughter rides a school bus. There are easily 25 kids, and my child is probably the only native English speaker with a pale complexion. And I love that. It shows her that we all deserve to live here.鈥

In response, English pointed out that this diversity often comes from the type of housing Thrive would enable. At this time, current zoning regulations make affordable homes effectively illegal to build. In this way, English said, Thrive opponents are fighting against mechanisms that enable the very diversity they claim to champion.

Undesirable allies

A recent from far-right outlet Breitbart News called Thrive a 鈥渨ar on single- family home neighborhoods.鈥 Thrive opponents are quick to distance themselves from this sort of right-wing fearmongering.

鈥淲e do not subscribe to the 鈥榳ar on the suburbs鈥 narrative,鈥 Joyce said. 鈥淲e want equity. We want decency. There鈥檚 nothing any of us have ever said that would put us in the camp of Steve Bannon.鈥

Public comments on an calling for the rejection of Thrive reveal homeowners’ fiery opposition to zoning changes. The petition received over 800 signatures.

Nevertheless, English said it鈥檚 鈥渘o coincidence鈥 that the county鈥檚 wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods tend to oppose Thrive the loudest. 鈥淭here鈥檚 a lot of progressives who need to wake up and check their allies because they鈥檙e not going to like who they are,鈥 he said.

When asked by 最新蜜桃影像 to address the Breitbart article, Lamari refused, saying it 鈥渄oesn鈥檛 deserve a response from us.鈥 He said local media should focus on the 鈥渞eal, substantive concerns鈥 of Thrive critics.

鈥淚t鈥檚 not dignified,鈥 he said. 鈥淲e know who we鈥檙e fighting for, and that鈥檚 the end of it. We have nothing to do with Breitbart.鈥

Both sides tend to agree that it鈥檚 unfounded and unfair to suggest Thrive will result in the end of Montgomery County鈥檚 suburbs.

鈥淚t鈥檚 not the end of the suburbs,鈥 Lyons said, 鈥渂ut it may be the end of some of the less savory characteristics of the American suburbs.鈥

Clarification: A previous version of this story contained a caption and photo that lacked context. It has been replaced.

M Colkitt

M is a Baltimore-based journalist concentrated on investigative reporting. They focus on covering the criminal justice system, human rights issues and the LGBTQ+ community. This autumn they're reporting on Montgomery County for 最新蜜桃影像.

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