Developers Win One in Montgomery
By Michael E. Ruane and Scott Wilson
The Montgomery County Council approved significant new building regulations yesterday that would make commercial and residential construction cheaper and easier and that proponents say would provide the county's stagnant development industry a short-term shot in the arm.
The legislation would help builders skirt rules that have been in place for well over a decade to control development in the county, and opponents said it was an abandonment of sound principles of orderly growth.
The council voted 5 to 4 in favor of the so-called pay-and-go rule, which would enable developers to avoid complex requirements by paying a building fee. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said he probably would sign the bill, which would be in effect for four years and could be extended. Supporters said it would help Montgomery compete for jobs and businesses with other area jurisdictions, particularly Fairfax County.
In a separate action, the council voted to tell Maryland's state government that it wants to pursue a modest program of improving existing roads and intersections in the northern part of the county, instead of building a new limited-access highway, known as the intercounty connector, between the Interstate 270 corridor and Interstate 95. (Related story on Page A14.)
The pay-and-go measure, sponsored by County Council member Gail Ewing (D-At Large), would free developers from long-standing regulations that require them either to pay for transportation improvements that their projects require or to put their plans on hold until the government picks up those costs.
The proposal also would allow developers to proceed with projects in areas where there are building moratoriums because of insufficient transportation infrastructure.
There are currently residential development moratoriums in Aspen Hill, Clarksburg, Damascus, Fairland-White Oak, Montgomery Village-Montgomery County Airpark and North Potomac. Commercial moratoriums would be lifted in Clarksburg, Derwood, Montgomery Village-Airpark and Fairland-White Oak.
Opponents say the plan could lead to uncontrolled development and would allow developers to build in areas where such projects may be least needed, at the expense of areas such as Silver Spring, where new development is needed most.
"We are fostering development in areas where we don't have the facilities, at the expense of areas where we do," said council member Neal Potter (D-At Large).
The council has three days to send the measure to Duncan, who has 10 days to act on it.
Duncan noted late yesterday that he generally has supported such initiatives. "It's for a trial period; it's for a limited period of time," he said. "It does bring money into the county to pay for infrastructure, which we're not getting now. There are benefits to it."
Montgomery planners, who opposed the bill, said the measure could significantly increase their work in the coming weeks as builders move quickly to revive stalled projects.
"Certainly it's a big deal in terms of it being a significant change to the process we've had for the last 15 years," said county planner Charles Loehr. "The question that still needs to be answered is: How many people will take advantage of this?"
Loehr disputed the building industry's analysis that regulations were the cause of slow development in Montgomery. He argued that the real estate market was the reason.
"Our view was that the market was holding up development, not the process," Loehr said. "Making it easier to get approvals wasn't necessarily the right way to do it."
Commercial and residential developers celebrated the bill as the most important land-use legislation passed in Montgomery since the council established stringent growth controls in the early 1980s.
David Flanagan, president of Elm Street Development Inc. in McLean, who has built about 35 residential communities in Montgomery, described the vote as "incredibly significant."
Flanagan said the new rules will allow him to begin several projects that have been on hold in moratorium areas. More important, he said, the change would help Montgomery shed its reputation as a county hostile to development.
"If you look at the numbers, Montgomery has been just getting killed by Fairfax County," Flanagan said. "Not only will this open up the areas, but this sends a message in the business community that you don't have to be scared of Montgomery County anymore."
Thomas C. Miller, president of Miller Properties in Bethesda, called the vote "extremely important" for commercial builders.
"Montgomery County is nationally known for its process. I can't tell you how many articles have been written in Urban Land Magazine about the controls Montgomery has on developers. This is not a reversal. However, it does provide a ray of hope that businesses are now invited back into Montgomery County," Miller said.