July 12, 2013

A DENSITY bonus allows a residential developer to build and sell higher, taller and more buildings than the zoning code would otherwise permit. Montgomery County awards such a bonus to developers who agree to suggestions, such as for more open space, offered by the public or the planning commission. In some zones, building more affordable housing than the minimum requirement, 12.5 percent of the total units being constructed, provides developers with an even greater density bonus.

The county is overhauling its 1,200-page zoning code for the first time in 35 years, and the latest draft revises the process for developers who seek approval to build more densely than would ordinarily be allowed. Today, the process is inconsistent and even arbitrary. Today, a developer seeking bonus density submits a plan and then is subject to the wishes and requests from the planning commission with input from the public. The developer often has few clear expectations about what it will provide in exchange for more density. The new code would include a menu of “public benefits,” or additional steps and features a developer seeking bonus density would be required to provide, weighted on a point system. Such features may include proximity to public transit, useful signage, public art, energy-conserving green roofs and respect for historical or architectural value.

Critics of the proposed revisions argue that the point system would diminish the incentive for building moderately priced housing above the requirement, because enabling developers to amass points by cheaper means will lead them to avoid the big-ticket cost of developing affordable housing, which is already in short supply. But as in the current code, developers would be allowed to build at the highest possible density level only if they build affordable housing. That wouldn’t change. In addition, affordable housing is listed on the menu of things that can win “public benefit” points.

The proposed changes make the process more fair and preserve the construction of moderately priced dwelling units as the only way for a developer to build to the highest possible density. The revisions neither aggressively increase nor diminish the incentive to build affordable housing. But they do more clearly spell out what the county values and what developers can expect when they seek approval to build.