Position on the
I-270 Technology Corridor

-- Steve Poteat

1.  First things first : The Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Plan is a PRESERVATION plan, not a development plan. 

The Livable Frederick Plan designates the Sugarloaf Plan (comprising less than 5% of the area of Frederick County) as part of the Green Infrastructure Sector (page 48),  comprised primarily of “Forests, Mountains, Stream Valleys and Parkland/Protected Lands.”

 

2.  The west side of I-270 in Sugarloaf Plan should be conservation land to protect the Sugarloaf Region. The boundary between intensive development in Urbana and preservation of Sugarloaf Mountain has historically been I-270.

 

Intensive development is on the east side and Sugarloaf preservation lands are on the west side. This has been reiterated in numerous planning efforts over the last 50 years.  This is consistent with land use on the west side of I-270 all the way to Clarksburg in Montgomery County. It seems that development pressure to break this historical boundary is developer driven.

 

One developer seems to have acquired most of the land along the west side of I-270 from Bennett Creek to Baker Valley Road and now wants to make it available for various high density commercial and industrial uses including, most likely, a data center complex and possibly high density resiential.  This is the same developer who gave up 250 acres of employment land on the east side of I-270  in exchange for residential uses. Similar to the  western side of I-270 in Montgomery County, in Frederick County only scenic rural roads, no water and sewer or public facilities exist on the west side which cannot accommodate this development.  Further, this intrusion will create more inexorable pressure for development on the west side as the development pushes down the scenic roads of Thurston, Park Mills and Baker Valley Roads, eventually destroying the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape.

3.  The I-270 Corridor in the Sugarloaf Plan only exists between I-270 and MD 355 for the foreseeable future.  The Maryland State Department of Commerce comments on the Sugarloaf Plan suggest the I-270 corridor has high importance in the “biotechnology cluster” being supported by the State. However, the I-270 Technology Corridor ends in Montgomery County at Clarksburg but for all practical purposes stops in Germantown.

 

With the adoption of the Clarksburg Master Plan all land on the west side of I-270 in Montgomery County from the MD 121 to the county line in Hyattstown has been placed in the Agriculture Reserve. In this area there are only rural roads, no public water and sewer and no public facilities with the exception of the Montgomery County Detention Center and a cemetery. Similar agricultural land uses on the west side of I-270 continue to MD 80 in Urbana with the exception of a two acre plant nursery.

 

From MD 80 to the Monocacy River there is only agriculture land  and some scattered residential development. For a distance of 14 miles on the west side of I-270 there is only one 2 acre parcel of commercial zoning and three special exceptions including a golf course.  This is clearly not the I-270 Biotechnology Corridor as envisioned by the State, Frederick County and Montgomery County and alluded to in the Livable Frederick Master Plan.

 

While there are biotechnology firms in Germantown, the areas along the east side of I-270 all the way to Frederick, a distance of 25 miles, one biotechnology firm, Kite Pharmaceuticals, has recently located a manufacturing facility in Urbana.  The remainder of the east side is dominated by a multitude of  construction companies, heavy equipment parking, a construction materials recycling plant, a car dealer, landscape companies, service industries, paving companies,  and two federal data centers. All of this is desirable employment but of course not biotechnology as the State desires. This employment concentration on the east side of I-270 has existed for the life of I-270, over 70 years, illustrating that the I-270 Corridor that has evolved is between I-270  and MD 355 on the east side of I-270.

 

4. Employment Development of the East Side I-270 Should be Maximized.

 

Suggested development on the WEST side of I-270 ignores the development potential already available on the EAST side which remains at between 2-3 million square feet which already includes two data centers,  a biotech firm and a sizable  insurance company and all necessary public utilities. Unfortunately, a major developer on the east side of I-270 in 2017 requested and received rezoning to convert approximately 4 million square feet of employment area, about 250 acres, to residential citing the lack of market demand for employment.  This would have accommodated 40 buildings of 100,000 square feet each. This trend is continuing with additional employment land in Urbana trying to rezone to residential.  These are lost opportunities to expand technology and other businesses development in Urbana in furtherance of the County and State goals.

 

Finally, it is inappropriate to plan for transit oriented development without assurance of transit availability which does not exist.  A Sugarloaf Plan suggestion of transit oriented development on the west side of I-270 creates misguided expectations on the part of the community. This will inevitably lead to  developer pressure to go ahead with transit oriented development since they will contend that transportation improvements are imminent.  Since transit availability is probably decades away, the Sugarloaf Plan needs to delete all reference to west side development.

 

5.  No transit, no transit oriented development.

 

To plan transit oriented development as part of the Sugarloaf Plan on the west side of I-270 at this time is inappropriate and misleading.  As reported in the Frederick Post on June 16, 2022, on June 15 the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments voted to approve the Visualize 2045 transportation plan.  This transportation plan did not include expansion of I-270 or any plans for transit on I-270 beyond I-370 in Montgomery County.  It did include the widening of US 15 through Frederick as well as increasing the frequency and capacity of trips on MARC commuter rail lines including the Brunswick Line that serves stations in Frederick, Brunswick and Point of Rocks. This supports the logical organic development growth around Frederick City and the common sense approach to improving existing infrastructure for commuter services into DC and the Metro area.

 

There are no programmed improvements to expand I-270, with transit, beyond I-370, south of Gaithersburg in Montgomery County. The Maryland Governor’s Op Lanes public-private efforts to increase I-270 capacity north of Gaithersburg have been pushed back again to the planning process maelstrom that has been ongoing for at least 50 years.  That effort is under legal challenge which could delay the approval of the improvements beyond the term of the existing Governor and put the whole effort in jeopardy.  To repeat, No Transit, No Transit Oriented Development on the west side of I-270 near Urbana.

Why the New Text on Page 54?

The following mystery sentence appears for the first time in the Sugarloaf Plan right before its adoption by the Planning Commission on July 13, 2022:

"The scale and scope of future planning for the Urbana Community Growth Area or the I-270 corridor may determine the degree and extent of examination of lands within the Sugarloaf Planning Area, if any, and may result in a limited plan amendment to the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Plan."

This mystery sentence is so contrary to the discussion and actions of the Planning Commission on the master plan up to July 13 one has to wonder where it came from. Did someone high in the Frederick County Government direct its inclusion or did someone from the development community insist that it be added so that it would be much easier to gut the Sugarloaf Plan later?  

This mystery sentence was not in the Sugarloaf Plan or even discussed by the Planning Commission when it considered the Sugarloaf Plan on June 15, 2022.  In fact this mystery wording was contrary to several previous actions of the Planning Commission including:

1.  At the very first Workshop of the Planning Commission on the Sugarloaf Master Plan on September 15, 2021, when the Planning Commission consciously voted to move the boundary back to I-270. This was after the “Natelli Cutout” suddenly appeared in the Sugarloaf Plan boundary, without explanation, following the publication of the February 19, 2021, Sugarloaf Plan Briefing Booklet.

2.  At the third workshop of the Planning Commission November 10, 2021, the Planning Commission voted logically to extend the northern boundary up to the Monocacy National Battlefield.

Why is it important? Because it creates a loop-hole in the Sugarloaf Plan boundary big enough to drive an Amazon data center complex and/or another Villages of Urbana right into the heart of the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape. Break the I-270 wall now and the Sugarloaf Valley will be flooded forever.

It has been suggested that this mystery sentence originated from the letter dated May 6, 2022, from the Maryland State Department of Commerce in their comments on the Sugarloaf Plan.  The letter stated that land along the west side of I-270 should be reserved for economic development.

Is it a coincidence that this land was the subject of an April 19 meeting held 17 days earlier at the Maryland State Department of Commerce in Baltimore. At this meeting, Tom Natelli, owner of Natelli Communities, owner of the original “Natelli Cutout”  and most of the land on the west side of I-270 between Bennett Creek and the Monocacy National Battlefield, met with:

- Mike Gill, Secretary, Maryland Department of Commerce

- Kyle McClogan, Chief of Staff, Maryland Department of Commerce

- Heather Graham, Assistant Secretary, Business and Industry Sector   Development , Maryland Department of Commerce, and,

- Jonas Jacobson of Perry White Ross Jacobson a Baltimore based advocacy firm..

According to the records of the meeting, disclosed under the Maryland Public Information Act the subject of the meeting was “Topic: Frederick County Planning Commission is considering a preservation overlay (Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Plan) that is an OVERREACH* (emphasis added) that would prevent economic development occurring along the west side of I-270 in Urban.  Mr. Natelli will provide a briefing.”

SO WHAT CAME FIRST, THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG, NATELLI’S PLEADINGS OR COMMERCE’S CONCERNS?

If you read the Maryland Department of Commerce’s letter of May 6, 2022 it looks like Commerce was sending a definite mixed message.  The letter also states the following:   

“Commerce recognizes that the area around Exit 26 [MD 80] to the WEST* of I-270 lies outside of the currently-designated  Priority Funding Area , and that it is classified in the County’s 2013 Growth Tier Map as either Tier III (no water and sewer services planned) or Tier IV (areas that are planned for PRESERVATION* and CONSERVATION* uses only.  Commerce also recognizes that the current Frederick County Comprehensive Plan shows that much of the undeveloped area EAST* of I-270 is zoned for Office/Research Industrial use and that the Growth map shows that these areas are listed as either Tier I (areas with water and sewer service) or Tier II (areas with planned future water and sewer service). THESE CLASSIFICATIONS WOULD GENERALLY DIRECT DEVELOPMENT IN THE AREA TO THE EAST SIDE OF I-270.*”   (*emphasis added)  

It is noted that Maryland Department of Commerce’s concerns about the potential loss of employment land in the Urbana area seem to be limited to Mr. Natelli’s land on the west side of I-270 in the Sugarloaf Planning Area:.

- Commerce raised no objection when Montgomery County rezoned 4 MILES of land on the west side of the famed I-270 Technology Corridor between Clarksburg and Hyattstown to Agricultural Reserve with only a jail and a cemetery.

-  Commerce raised no objection when Mr. Natelli, citing a lack of demand for employment land,  rezoned 250 acres on the east side of I-270 in Urbana from employment to residential foregoing  4 MILLION SQUARE FEET of employment development, or FORTY, 100, 000 SQUARE FOOT BUILDINGS.(Emphasis added)

It seems the Maryland Department of Commerce is quite selective about its concerns.