Montgomery Council Weighs Proposal to Limit Paving in Front Yards

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mowing the lawn can be a pain. So can parking on the street in some Montgomery County neighborhoods without driveways and with intense competition for spots. In recent years, some residents figured out a solution: pave over the front yard.

Soon, that could be a violation of county law.

The Montgomery County Council yesterday began considering a proposal by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to limit pavement in front yards and restrict who could park there. Violators could be fined as much as $500 a day for each offense, potentially rising to $750 a day for repeat offenders. No matter how small your lot, however, you would always be allowed to have at least 310 square feet of pavement, enough for two short, tightly parked cars.

The proposal also would forbid parked vehicles on grass in the front yard, forcing drivers to either park on pavement, gravel or stone in the yard or park on the street. But it doesn't mention the back yard, which means that still could be paved over in most single-family neighborhoods.

If approved, the measure would take effect six months later.

Mark Scott, a Bethesda builder, said he was baffled by the proposal.

"I really chafe at being put under the thumb of big government or, more importantly, little government that thinks it is big government. Why does Montgomery County feel the constant need to jump in and make things better?" Scott said. "I have often been told, 'Montgomery County is a solution in search of a problem.' What is the problem? What are we fixing?"

Susan Rich, president of Connecticut Avenue Estates civic association, near Wheaton, has been pressing county officials for several years to address paved front yards. She said it's a matter of environmental concerns and neighborhood aesthetics.

"If everybody paved over their yards, it would be an environmental crisis," she said.

But some of her neighbors with paved front yards said they did it in self-defense. "There's no parking here on the street," said a resident of Andrew Street, who asked that her name not be used so as not to anger her neighbors. Another nearby resident, who also requested anonymity, said he had paved over his front yard after having too many squabbles with his neighbors about who would park where. The neighbors, he said, often parked in front of his house, making it difficult to bring in groceries and other things.

The proposed bill, similar to laws in Fairfax and Prince George's counties, is the second phase of a Montgomery strategy that has limited big trucks in residential neighborhoods. In January, the council approved a bill pushed by member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) to prohibit long-term parking by trucks and recreational vehicles on residential streets. Violators will receive a $75 ticket. The measure, one of the strictest limits in the region, takes effect July 1.

That measure drew critics who said it smacked of "elitism" and would drive working-class residents out of the county.

Both bills were proposed primarily to deal with safety issues, said Thomas J. Street, a top aide to Leggett.

Yesterday's measure would restrict pavement in the front yard to 30 percent in many neighborhoods and up to 50 percent for residences on busy roads where on-street parking is limited. It also proposes restrictions on certain home-based businesses, limiting the number of employees to one for every business in a 24-hour period and limiting client visits to 20 a week and no more than five a day. No more than two vehicles could visit the home business at any time.

The proposal does not affect medical offices, which usually operate under a different set of rules, but would affect home-based accountants, lawyers, contractors, retail operations and distributors.

"The overriding consideration was safety and quality of life issues in residential neighborhoods," said Street, who headed a government group that studied enforcement of existing rules in neighborhoods and offered revisions.

"Safety is first. Kids are darting in and out behind big vehicles, and that created line-of-sight problems in residential neighborhoods," Street said.

The legislation, which will be aired at a June 9 County Council hearing in Rockville, also specifies types of vehicles allowed on private pavement. A business owner who brings a truck home at night won't be able to park in the front yard if the truck is taller than eight feet (when the tires are fully inflated); longer than 21 feet, which also counts gear such as ladders mounted on the truck; and has the capacity to carry a load of more than a ton. The vehicle itself cannot weigh more than 10,000 pounds. Most panel trucks and small pickups would be allowed.

Enforcing the new law could be difficult. The bill seeks three additional inspectors for the Department of Permitting Services, but staff members have said for years that they struggle to keep pace with their duties, never mind adding more.

"This will be a complaint-driven system, just as it is currently," Street said. That means it will be up to neighbors to complain about neighbors.

"We have to strike a balance between how property was used when it was constructed 40 to 50 years ago. A family had one car; they were lucky if they had two. Nowadays, if you have three teenagers, you probably have five cars," Street said.

The measure introduced yesterday would not affect such a family, which could park two cars on its property and three on the street.

Assuming everyone could find a space.

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