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Annexation war pits Gaithersburg against Rockville

Rockville and Gaithersburg are nearly identical in many ways, and usually get along. But they aren't happy with each other right now, as they fight over who will annex a property located in the narrow swath of unincorporated land between them. This fight shows how long-term planning works and why it is important.

The disputed property. Image from Google Street View.

The crux of their disagreement is that Gaithersburg wants to annex a piece of land near the Rockville border that Rockville has never annexed itself, but to which Rockville thinks it is entitled. The land is south of Shady Grove Road, which many people think of as the unofficial boundary between the two cities.

But what people think of unofficially is not the law. There are actually laws on the books that govern how annexation works. When the dust settles, Gaithersburg is going to win this fight, because Gaithersburg has proactively thought about its long term planning needs, while Rockville has been strictly reactive.

The State of Maryland requires incorporated cities to adopt a future expansion plan, showing areas that each city may want to annex in the future. The entire point of this requirement is to give cities the opportunity to show where their "unofficial" boundaries are, so that everyone can plan accordingly.

And whether Rockville cares to admit it or not, they never made any kind of claim to the land in question until after Gaithersburg claimed it for itself, despite many opportunities to do so. If Rockville thought itself entitled to everything south of Shady Grove Road, then Rockville should have used the state's process to stake a legal claim.

Here are maps showing each city's adopted expansion plans, taken from their respective growth plans (page 66 on Rockville's on the top, page 30 on Gaithersburg's below):

The property in question is near the southeast corner of Shady Grove Road and Frederick Road:

Map by the author on Google Maps.

The Gaithersburg plan was adopted in 2009, and clearly shows this property as part of Gaithersburg's claim area. It's possible Gaithersburg claimed the land even earlier, but at the very latest by 2009 they had declared their intention to the land. Meanwhile, Rockville's plan shows that they didn't start thinking about this property until 2010, and had even specifically excluded it from their expansion plan during their previous update in 2002.

If Rockville wanted this land, why didn't they claim it in 2002? Or even before? If they really thought of Shady Grove Road as the boundary with Gaithersburg, why not make it official during any of the many updates to their expansion plan over the decades? Why wait until after Gaithersburg claimed it to express any interest?

Rockville didn't plan for the long term, and Gaithersburg did, and so Gaithersburg is going to win. They are set to annex the property at tonight's City Council meeting, and Rockville is powerless to stop it.

This is a good lesson to everyone. Proactively plan for what you want, or lose out to someone who did.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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Which town do the owners favor? Why wouldn't that be the deciding factor?

by Jim Titus on Aug 6, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

This is why my long-term plan includes annexing the entire county. And then the state. And then... THE WORLD.

by Bossi on Aug 6, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

Interesting. I've always thought that Rockville and Gaithersburg should have nice clean boundaries along Randolph/Montrose Road and Shady Grove Road, but I see that they've both anticipated this.

by Frank IBC on Aug 6, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

As long as Rockville an Gaithersburg do not have tanks shooting at each other, it's not a war. Calling this bureaucratic kerfuffle a war is a bigger cliche than complaining about misleading political ads.

There should at least be a tug of war as between The Maritime Republic of Eastport and Annapolis.

by Jasper on Aug 6, 2012 4:10 pm • linkreport

Go G-burg!

by Gaithersburger on Aug 6, 2012 5:46 pm • linkreport

Jim T.: Sears approached Gaithersburg requesting the annexation, so I think that answers your question.

by Bob on Aug 6, 2012 6:31 pm • linkreport

Whats with the giant empty spot in the middle of Gaithersburg how in the heck did that happen ?

by kk on Aug 6, 2012 9:36 pm • linkreport


That isn't "empty". That's NIST, it belongs to the Federal Government. There really wouldn't be much point in annexing it into the City.

by Bob on Aug 6, 2012 9:54 pm • linkreport

And actually, I should point out that NIST only occupies the portion (of the central pink zone in the map above) South/West of I-270. The small triangle North and East of I-270 is residential, mostly apartment complexes. While that could be annexed, it just has never happened. There's no particular incentive for the City or property owner to pursue that at this time, although I don't think the County would mind if the City took it off their hands. Perhaps if the owners decide to redevelop some day in the future...

by Bob on Aug 6, 2012 10:03 pm • linkreport

Mr. Malouff, thanks for your comment on Gaithersburg Patch in response to Councilman Moore of Rockville. While I dont agree with the conflict this will cause between Gaithersburg and Rockville, it was a very informative piece. I just wish you included a direct link to your article. Again thanks.

by Tom on Aug 7, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

cf. Hyattsville, which has been pretty aggressive with annexation. 2. the disadvantage of annexation for residents is much higher property taxes compared to being in unincorporated sections of the county (in either PG or Montgomery).

you make the point about planning. My line about this is a riff on Pasteur's "chance favors the prepared mind." Mine is "chance favors the prepared city."

But it's not really chance as much as it is as happenstance and circumstances providing opportunities that without plans are very difficult to take advantage of.

by Richard Layman on Aug 7, 2012 2:52 pm • linkreport

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