Montgomery County planners, developers and environmental officials are debating whether the county can force builders to create ride-sharing programs in new subdivisions.
The County Council may have to step in to resolve the issue.
The County Planning board, faced with developers clambering for building permits at the same time roads were choked with traffic, began imposing ride-sharing requirements last summer. The county has the authority to do so, says Board Chairman Norman L. Christeller, under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which allows planners to deny or modify building requests if there are not enough adequate public facilities -- such as roads, sewers or schools -- to support them.
But now, months later, other county officials say the county lacks an enforcement mechanism and are proposing that the ordinance be rewritten.
A new version of the ordinance would be "a good example of the county finding a technical, legal way of carrying out a law that everyone is in favor of," said John L. Menke, director of the county Department of Enviromental Protection, which is in charge of issuing building and occupancy permits.
"Everyone," however, does not include a number of developers, who say they don't like being forced to implement ride-sharing programs and may fight the issue in court.
Christeller, for his part, said that not only does he believe the county has the power to enforce ride-sharing programs, but that the county doesn't enforce them, the Planning Board will simply stop approving developments.
The issue came to light last week when Menke voiced his doubts that ride-share programs could be enforced. The Planning Board had written him a letter in December asking him not to issue an occupancy permit to an apartment building in Germantown until he was satisfied that the owners had hired two people to create a ride-sharing program for the complex. The board had made the ride-sharing program a condition of its approval of the development, the letter stated.
Menke, who said this was the first time he was asked to enforce a ride-sharing program, sent a memo to the board last week stating that he could not legally deny an occupancy permit for that reason.
"Under the law, occupancy permits are issued when a building is proved to be safe and structurally up to standard," Menke elaborated this week. "Under the present law, we cannot be used to enforce an APF adequate public facilities condition."
After receiving the memo, the Planning Board at its meeting last week deferred three development applications, said board spokesman John Hoover, because the staff had recommended that conditions be imposed on the developers under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.
Hoover said the conditions usually call for the developer to either hire staff to create a ride-share program or require the developer to contact a certain number of people in the new subdivision with information about car pools and public transporatation.
"It's a good idea and as legal as it can be," said Christeller this week. "There is no way we can solve the traffic problems by paving the whole county into one big road. We have to alleviate traffic with ride-share programs and Montgomery has led the way in starting up good working models.
"If the county doesn't enforce our conditions then we'll just stop approving developments," he said. "We cannot continue to pour cars onto our roads."
Menke said he is not opposed to the ride-share conditions imposed on developers but he is not sure the county has the laws to enforce them.
"It's just time now to step back and take a look at how we can do this," said Menke, who said members of the DEP and planning staff will meet with county attorneys as soon as possible to hammer out a legal solution. He said the officials may also discuss other potential problems with the rideshare conditions, such as how to monitor its progress over the long run and ways to evaluate its success.
Assistant County Attorney Alan M. Wright said this week that county law can be rewritten to allow planners to enforce such conditions as ride-share programs. He said the law could be similar to those now in effect that require developers to improve roads and sewers as conditions of approval for their developments.
"The developer could enter into an agreement with the county with a bond, such as is done now for road improvements," said Wright. "If this contract is broken, the county could keep the bond. This way, permits would not be used as enforcement tools, contracts would."
However, area developers may well balk at that, said industry spokesmen this week.
Susan Matlick, spokesman for the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association, which represents 800 area developers, said that developers support public transporatation and are willing to work with the county to implement ride share programs and other ideas to reduce traffic in the county.
"But it is completely unacceptable to us for them to come up with legislation that forces developers to force people into ride-sharing programs," she said. "It is impractical and would be difficult to hold up in court."
However, Wright said the county has the right to put conditions on the issuance of permits under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. He said any new legislation would deal with enforcement only, although he said he did not know of any court cases in the state that have set a precedent for such enforcement.
"We are working to find a way to legally enforce these types of conditions," he said.