Proposed Montgomery zoning rules look to a more urban county

June 8, 2013

Almost everyone familiar with the Montgomery County zoning ordinance agrees that it is bloated (1,200-plus pages), overly complex (more than 400 land-use categories) and encrusted with antiquated terminology. (Want to open an abattoir? See Section 59-G-2.00.2.)

That’s pretty much where the agreement ends. The Planning Department’s proposed rewrite of the law, four years in the making and the subject of a County Council hearing on Tuesday, does more than just slim it down and spiff it up. It codifies a vision of a more urban Montgomery with much less parking, more housing around commercial centers and mass transit, and building designs that cater to pedestrians. There is also a nod to the urban agriculture movement in the relaxation of rules on farm animals. Homeowners with average-sized lots would be able to keep up to eight hens, ducks or miniature goats on their property (no roosters).

Francoise Carrier, chair of the county Planning Board, which approved the draft ordinance in May and sent it to the council, said she sees the document as a tool for bringing “more vibrancy and 24-hour activity” to the county. That makes the proposed revision consistent with Montgomery’s aspiration, as voiced by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), to be a more desirable destination for millennials — people between the ages of 18 and 34.

But those leery of this urbanist view see the revised code as a threat to the county’s residential neighborhoods. They cite ideas and language in the plan that could open the door to encroachment by unwanted development.

“This is a shift in policy through the new code,” said former Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, founder of Neighborhood Montgomery, a network of advocates for residential communities.

Marc Elrich (D-At Large), a member of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, which will review the draft this summer, is more blunt, declaring it “a travesty.”

County planners have “basically ramrodded this thing,” he said. “It’s a particular ideological image of the county. They want to turn it into a city.” Rather than contain suburban sprawl, Elrich contends that the new code would facilitate it by allowing increased density on commercial land.

Supporters of the plan say such concerns are overblown.

Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who also is on the council’s planning committee, said traditional zoning ordinances such as Montgomery’s, which established significant traveling distances between where people can live and where they can work and shop, “is a primary culprit in climate change” and needs to be addressed.

“I anticipate there will be a drumbeat of concern among some of my constituents who pay attention to the fine points of zoning law,” he said. “But our goal is to maintain the attractiveness and desirability of our residential neighborhoods.”

The most significant proposed change would allow owners of commercial properties to add housing if they meet certain conditions. The objective is more mixed-use areas similar — in type if not scale — to the White Flint redevelopment underway along Rockville Pike, envisioned as a combination of housing at various prices, walkable streets and casual dining.

“We’re trying to get away from the dowdy commercial shopping center that is dead at night and has acres of parking lots,” said Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the planning panel.

The plan also creates a new category of nonresidential building, the “general building,” that can be placed in neighborhoods. Many buildings in residential communities — churches, day-care centers, clinics — already fit that definition. Planners said the rewrite imposes slightly more stringent standards, such as bigger setbacks than would be required for a house. But neighborhood advocates are concerned about language in the draft that says the buildings will be required to resemble single-family homes only “to the extent practical.”

“The draft encourages a proliferation of nonresidential or group residential uses that can overwhelm our existing neighborhoods,” Wellington said in testimony prepared for Tuesday’s council hearing.

Parking requirements would be reduced significantly. Planners want to encourage the use of mass transit and push businesses and apartment complexes to share space.

Restaurant parking would shrink dramatically, from the current standard of 25 spaces per 1,000 square feet of dining area to as few as four spaces, depending on the location. It means, for example, that a Ruby Tuesday with 3,000 square feet of patron space, which is currently required to maintain 75 parking spots, could do business with as few as a dozen.

Office buildings, which now require three spaces per thousand square feet, would need only 2.25 spaces. They would also face requirements for bike space and shower facilities for both sexes.

The zoning reboot was requested by the council in 2008, with a big push from Rollin Stanley, who was then the planning director and was a major proponent of mixed use and increased densities. A 23-member panel of community and business representatives worked with officials on the changes. County officials said that early drafts of the revisions were far more sweeping and were dialed back after Stanley’s departure last year.

Builders and developers said that they were still studying the final draft but that their early view was favorable. They praised the consolidation of more than 120 zoning classifications into 12 “families” and simplified tables to determine legal uses for land and buildings.

“We support the zoning rewrite,” said Miti Figueredo, a vice president of the Chevy Chase Land Co. “It modernizes and cleans up the very complex zoning code.”

Robert Kaufman, associate director of public affairs for the Maryland-National Capital Build­ing Industry Association, said he liked what he saw but lamented the apparent absence of provisions to accelerate the notoriously slow county approval process for development projects, which can take 18 months to two years.

The changes that may draw the most heated debate involve animal husbandry.

While small farm animals are currently permitted in many residential neighborhoods, the revisions would relax setback requirements for chicken coops and other animal housing. Many homeowners would, for example, be able to keep one miniature goat for every 2,000 feet and a hen, duck or rabbit for every thousand feet of land area, with a maximum of 8 animals per lot.

The measure would add the county to a growing number of localities considering more “sustainable” policies to cut down the distances people must travel for basics such as food. Howard County is looking at easing restrictions on keeping chickens in urban or suburban settings. Annapolis recently allowed residents in single-family homes to keep up to five hens with the approval of adjacent property owners.

Montgomery officials have received a wave of mail, pro and con. Some writers express alarm at the possibility of exposure to manure-born pathogens and unwanted noise.

“What will become of the hens when they are no longer ‘productive’?” asked Ed Terry of Kensington. “Will they become someone else’s problem . . . or will we be talking about amateur backyard slaughtering too?”

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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