A community planned for transit now resists it


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

Residents of King Farm in Rockville, Maryland, are accused of NIMBYism in trying to move a light-rail line from their main boulevard.

Eight hundred residents of the 3,200-unit traditional neighborhood development recently petitioned Rockville City Council for help in getting the state to build a mass transit line somewhere other than through the center of their community.

Their request — viewed by many smart-growth proponents as self-centered and short-sighted — has ignited criticism on a number of blogs.

“So much for the widely-touted concept of ‘transit-ready’ development,” wrote Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council on his blog. He characterized the residents’ assertions as “NIMBY complaints” from people “who are just fine with driving their cars and apparently see transit as blight rather than benefit.”

“One assumes that residents of King Farm moved here knowing the plans were in place for transit and it’s not clear how it became a matter for debate,” wrote Allison Arieff, former editor in chief of Dwell magazine, on the GOOD blog.

Even before the first residents moved into King Farm in the 1990s, the 440-acre development, about 10 miles beyond the Capital Beltway, had been laid out by Torti Gallas and Partners to feature a 50-foot wide median down which light-rail service (or alternatively Bus Rapid Transit) would eventually run. Currently just a grassy strip, it was designed to be part of the future Corridor Cities Transitway.

Now that the transit plans are coming closer to implementation, many residents are unhappy. One of them, Lisa Conners, protested in January about the prospect of having light-rail trains pass through a median that’s 20 feet from her condominium unit on King Farm Boulevard.

The line “would cut the neighborhood in half, block vehicle and pedestrian traffic, create noise and change life as King Farm residents know it,” several residents told City Council members, according a summary of their complaints in the Rockville Patch, available here.

On a 4-1 vote in January, the Council asked the state to study alternative routes on the periphery of King Farm. Governor Martin O’Malley is to decide this spring where the 14-mile transit line between the Shady Grove Metro station and a site near Clarksburg, Maryand, will run.

Joan Hannon, leader of the Coalition for the Preservation of King Farm, which opposes the boulevard route, said her group is worried about the effect that transit construction would have on traffic, parking, pedestrian safety, and buildings, according to a Montgomery Gazettearticle.

Many of the charges made against running the line through the center of King Farm either were disputed by John Britton — the lone Council member to vote against studying alternative routes — or were recently addressed by Rockville Public Works Director Craig Simoneau or the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).

In particular:

• Residents argued that light rail, by eliminating various street crossings, will essentially create a “wall” separating one side of King Farm from the other. Simoneau replied that the MTA could keep all the crossings opening if traffic signals are installed on them, according to Daily Trends (available here). Connectivity would consequently be maintained.

• Noise concerns could be alleviated by having the trains use bells instead of horns, according to information that Britton elicited. In a signalized system, “quiet zones” could be established.

• Council member Piotr Gajewski, who lives in King Farm, reportedly said the Transitway would bring “no benefits” to King Farm residents, who already have a shuttle that takes them to the Shady Grove Metro station. Britton argued, however, that some of the high-tech workers at a future science center in the area will likely use the Transitway to live in King Farm. Transit service is also expected to be good for business in the development. King Farm has 125,000 square feet of retail and a substantial office district.

King Farm Associates, the developers of King Farm, favors running the Transitway down the boulevard median as indicated in a 1995 annexation agreement. Barbara Sears, an attorney for the developers, told the Council: “We believe the [Corridor Cities Transitway] as planned is most definitely the appropriate way to support the density approved at the King Farm, get people out of their cars as anticipated, and link and utilize existing transportation resources in an economically responsible manner.”

“I don’t think the [Montgomery] County Council will change the alignment, and I don’t think the state will either,” Britton told New Urban Network. The Council Council has previously endorsed light rail through King Farm, he noted.

Britton said one of the proposed alternatives — running transit along Interstate 370 — would be a mistake because it would interfere with prospects for transit-oriented development. He pointed out that where Metro rail runs in the Interstate 66 right-of-way in northern Virginia, TOD has failed to come into being. Britton also opposes installing Bus Rapid Transit rather than light rail because it’s not clear that BRT will be as effective at generating development at transit stops.

One potentially beneficial change that’s being considered to the 14-mile transit route is a shift at Kentlands, the region’s first traditional neighborhood development, which is farther out from Washington. Kentlands residents have asked that the Transitway be moved somewhat, to run directly through their community. In other words, Kentlands residents seem to look upon transit in a way that’s almost the opposite of King Farm residents. Britton says that including Kentlands in the route would make sense.

King Farm has been recognized by both the Congress for New Urbanism and the US Environmental Protection Agency as a good example of walkable, transit-oriented design.