The newest commissioner on the Montgomery County Planning Board refers to himself as “the accidental candidate” when talking about his appointment.
Partap Verma, who joined the board in July, looks at this as a natural transformation from work he began after moving to the Forest Glen area in 2013.
The Paint Branch High School graduate began a blog called Finding Forest Glen in 2015 while on paternity leave. In it, he discussed issues such as the lack of neighborhood sidewalks and a desire to see more transit-oriented development.
“The blog resulted into a local charrette where we had 65 people come out on a random Tuesday, where I ordered pizzas for everybody,” the Washington, D.C. native said. “Next thing I knew, I had filled a void of a community that had wanted to see more retail and development in the neighborhoods, but had been historically not represented because the civics were kind of establishing an area for the neighborhood.”
Following the charrette, Verma wrote a development report that caught the attention of the Planning Department and led to the founding of Friends of Forest Glen.
“When the county had announced they were going to merge both Montgomery Hills and Forest Glen [for sector planning], then I expanded it to our activists south of the Beltway and it became Friends of Forest Glen & Montgomery Hills,” Verma said.
One of the early priorities for the advocacy group was the creation of a second entrance to the Forest Glen Metro via a tunnel under Georgia Avenue. The tunnel, which would run from the northeast corner of Georgia and Forest Glen Road, is now part of the capital improvement budget.
During the course of his advocacy work, Verma said he grew to admire the planning process, including the way the community could be involved in its various stages, and thought perhaps he could use his skill set at the county level.
“If you had asked me when I started my blog would I have started an advocacy group two years later, I would say no,” he said. “So my trajectory has been kind of a natural transformation that kind of followed itself in a way.”
Outside of his commissioner duties, Verma currently works at the Department of Homeland Security as an associate counsel focusing on privacy law and compliance. Additionally, he is a certified mediator for DHS and specializes in alternative dispute resolution.
“What I like about the Planning Board is that it’s a multi-faceted position,” he said. “That includes not only making judgments on the day that we have a session, but also representing the community in supporting projects that we really believe in.”
His priorities during his first term of office will include pedestrian safety and affordable housing, Verma said.
“We’re at a turning point in this county where it’s become, unfortunately, very common—almost on a weekly basis—that we’re hearing about a pedestrian who has been struck,” he said. “Something large needs to happen.”
For example, Verma pointed to the recent launch of the county’s Pedestrian Master Plan to tackle some of the safety issues.
“But there also needs to be a cultural shift,” he said. “We need to recognize that this county is not only growing, but there is an urban nature to many parts of this county that once were truly suburban.
“So retrofitting cars into that environment, and people being more mindful of people who are trying to have more active, walkable lifestyles in an area where you do have roads like an eight-lane Georgia Avenue, is a challenge,” Verma added.
He also sees the need to advocate for additional density as a means of providing more affordable housing, especially in areas around Metro stations.
“Obviously, the market will dictate a lot of that,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t advocate for it and really push developments to recognize that if we are going to be a truly progressive society, we are going to adopt affordable housing as a principle.”
Another topic Verma is focusing on is the upcoming start of the Silver Spring master planning process, which is in the pre-planning stage for a launch early next year.
“Traditionally, we have our planning area and our study area, and the study area is a little bit broader,” Verma said. “What’s exciting about the Silver Spring plan is it’s going to be very similar to what we did in Bethesda, in the sense that I think we really are looking to the future.
“With the Purple Line stations being activated in the next couple of years,” he added, “I think the second chapter for Silver Spring is about to start.”
Photo by Mike Diegel