Montgomery approves revamped zoning code


Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, right, shown in 2011, voted against the revised zoning code, saying protections for neighborhoods against commercial encroachment are still not as strong as they should be. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County Council approved an overhaul of the county’s zoning code Tuesday that is intended to simplify an unwieldy document and modernize it to shape growth in a suburb with an increasingly urban face.

Some of the changes are technical, designed to streamline and rationalize a 1,200-page document that has not been seriously revised in nearly 40 years. Over time, it has been swollen by more than 400 land-use categories (newspaper stand, flower shop), multiple tables, and confusing or antiquated terminology.

But the new code is also designed as a tool to shape a less car-dependent county where residents walk more, drive less and use mass transit.

“This is a good step forward for Montgomery County,” said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s planning committee.

In some instances, the required number of parking spaces for new businesses or office buildings has been reduced. The revised code tries to limit sprawl by creating zoning categories that allow residential construction in some commercial areas. Officials said they hope it will encourage a rethinking of some older 1960s- and ­’70s-era shopping strips with vast expanses of surface parking.

The rewrite, initiated nearly five years ago by then-Planning Director Rollin Stanley, produced controversy and debate as it wended through a citizens panel, the county’s Planning Board and, finally, the council last year.

County planners said the rewrite strengthened protections for neighborhoods against commercial encroachment. But neighborhood groups pushed back hard, leading to several amendments to the draft produced by the planning board.

But council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), the lone vote against the revisions, said the protections are still not as strong as they should be. He said neighborhood shopping strips could grow unacceptably dense and high under the new code. Elrich also said the new code does not press developers for sufficient amenities in exchange for being able to build bigger and taller.

“I think we’re going to continue to have problems with this,” he said.

Also struck from the original version of the rewrite was a provision to allow chicken coops as close as 15 feet to lot lines in residential neighborhoods. The measure reflected a growing interest in “sustainable” food sources to reduce the distances that people must travel.

The change was scrapped after County Health Officer Ulder Tillman raised concerns about elevated risk of human salmonella infection.

Not all elements of the new code are set. The council will probably revisit regulations covering the county’s agricultural zone. Elrich said that as written, the code might contain a loophole that would allow schools or other non-farming uses.

The council set an effective date of Oct. 30 to allow for other changes­ if necessary. During that time, a new zoning map — necessary to implement the revised code — will be drafted. Council members said interested parties will have an opportunity to learn more about the zoning of their property and work out any errors or anomalies.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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