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In new zoning plan, Montgomery must avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’

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Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett is generally a tactful sort who avoids giving offense. So it got my attention last week when he publicly trashed the County Council’s planned major overhaul of commercial zoning rules as “a disaster waiting to happen.”

Thank you, Mr. Leggett, for making commercial zoning so interesting. After looking into the matter, however, I think he and other critics of the plan are off target.

The proposals, which are expected to win final council approval on Tuesday, are designed to solve one of the biggest challenges facing our region’s inner suburbs: how to create denser, more urban neighborhoods without sacrificing quality of life.

The answer: gradually transform all-business districts into communities with a mix of apartment units and commercial space. Embrace transit-oriented “smart growth” by rewarding development near Metro stations (or the light-rail Purple Line, if it ever gets built).

“Imagine a strip mall suddenly turning into a three-story building with a dry cleaners and convenience stores on the ground floor, and some nice apartments above it,” Montgomery Planning Director Rollin Stanley said.

That would provide attractive housing for young people, he said, or seniors looking to downsize. The extra residences will permit continued growth of population and jobs in a county with virtually no place left to add traditional neighborhoods of single-family homes.

Montgomery is hardly alone in pursuing this goal. Its approach is similar to the one that Fairfax County is using as it rebuilds the mess that is Tysons Corner.

Montgomery’s plan has flaws, for sure. In particular, it should put more pressure on developers to pay for affordable housing and public facilities like parks and community centers.

Still, the greater risk in Montgomery is that slow-growth or no-growth advocates will create “paralysis by analysis.” That’s the danger — that the county will spend so much time studying how to attain an ideal that it ends up achieving nothing.

This is one of those really important planning decisions that will help shape the county for years to come, but is also so complicated and arcane that the public pays little attention.

Only a few dozen planners, land-use lawyers and community activists fully grasp the formulas that determine how tall a building can be depending on factors such as size of lot, neighborhood type and proximity to the Metro.

“You have to be a Mandarin scholar to understand it,” said Meredith Wellington, a former planning board commissioner who now leads a group of neighborhood activists opposed to the measures.

Even critics concede that the plan offers some benefits. It simplifies an existing hodgepodge of more than 30 zoning categories for business areas. Activists were relieved that it preserves their ability to have a say in zoning changes by requiring that any new zone be approved as part of a neighborhood’s master plan.

Opponents are unhappy mainly that the plan doesn’t demand more concessions from builders in return for the right to redevelop properties.

They charged that the council was too generous because the slow economy has made politicians desperate to do something, anything, to encourage development.

“They’re somewhat in a panic over the downturn in tax revenue. They seem to think this is a silver bullet,” Wellington said.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), one of the plan’s principal supporters, said the critics’ concerns can be addressed in the future as the council approves individual communities’ master plans.

As a result, expect major battles soon over plans for Kensington, Wheaton and Takoma Park-Langley, the next three communities scheduled for revision.

The zoning overhaul “is a tremendous improvement over the existing situation. Does it solve all our issues over affordable housing? No, but we have other tools to do that,” Floreen said. “People are worried about something that hasn’t happened, which is how it’s going to be applied.”

For his part, Leggett is in the odd position of being the county’s most powerful official yet lacking the authority to block significant changes that displease him.

That’s because the council controls land-use policy; he won’t be able to veto the bill.

“I think it’s done,” Leggett said, noting that the plan easily won approval on a straw vote Oct. 4. “We’ll do what we can to make it work.”

Although it will need some tweaking, the plan pushes Montgomery in the right direction. Newcomers need to live somewhere. Better to build apartments near transit than add to sprawl in the outer suburbs.

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