The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Officials call it a common-sense zoning change. These homeowners say it’s a ‘betrayal.’

Gail Weiss, right, a lifelong Bethesda resident, Paul Jarosinski and Ann Hingston protest the zoning amendment earlier this month. (Rebecca Tan/The Washington Post)

The group of 20 or so homeowners, many of them retirees, marched into Montgomery County Council headquarters in Rockville wielding handmade signs and binders stuffed with research. Their target: a zoning amendment that would loosen regulations for auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs, allowing thousands more residents of Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction to transform garages, basements or detached structures into separate residences.

“NO STEALTH UP ZONING,” read one sign. “PROTECT SINGLE FAMILY HOMES,” read another.

The protesters were the latest soldiers in a vocal, sometimes ugly war against ADUs, a low-cost housing option that planning experts champion as a tool for modernizing an outdated vision of suburban America. Opponents see the dwellings as an attack on the American Dream.

When officials in Reno, Nev., pursued a law allowing more ADUs, residents from older, more affluent neighborhoods filed into government buildings in protest, eventually pressuring lawmakers to quash the legislation. In Colorado Springs, voting on a plan to loosen ADU restrictions has been delayed for months because of strong opposition. In Montgomery County, a Republican appointee to the Charter Review Commission triggered an uproar last month when she wrote a letter to the editor saying ADUs would turn the suburb of 1 million people “into a slum.”

Opponents are expected to turn out in force on Tuesday, when the County Council will vote on the zoning amendment. Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who introduced the bill in January, said it has the support of a majority of members.

“We have a housing crisis,” said council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), citing the difficulty of living in a county where the median price of homes exceeds $400,000. The amendment, he added, “is part of our response.”

A petition against the amendment had more than 1,200 signatures as of Sunday. But the vast majority of the several hundred emails Hucker has received on the issue are supportive, he said. Residents of Silver Spring, one of the country’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, have been particularly enthusiastic.

Opponents include conservative Republicans who say they feel alienated in the increasingly liberal county and have concerns with the demographic changes they say more ADUs would bring. They are joined by some liberal Democrats, who shy away from the conservatives’ racially charged language but also don’t want their streets and subdivisions to change. In interviews with more than 20 opponents of the bill, the argument most frequently cited is that ADUs will alter the character of single-family neighborhoods.

“There’s this very powerful notion that the American Dream is built around ownership of a detached house on its own plot of land,” said Amanda Hurley, a journalist from Silver Spring who wrote the book “Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City.” The fact that zoning in these neighborhoods has remained the same for so long, she added, “has created this false sense of permanence, a sense that this is forever.”

Fears across the spectrum

ADUs were legalized in Montgomery years ago. But according to Riemer, there are only 475 such dwellings in the county, among 175,000 single-family homes. The zoning amendment would, among other things, remove prohibitions on detached auxiliary dwellings on lots smaller than one acre and in small-lot single-family zones. This would affect about 121,000 residences, though some would remain ineligible to build ADUs because of other regulations.

Critics say the change would worsen traffic and school overcrowding, but research by the county’s planning department suggests otherwise. Potential beneficiaries, officials say, include retirees seeking to age in place, parents who want to house adult children, and people seeking affordable options in an increasingly pricey area where job growth is outpacing housing supply.

In 2016, D.C. officials loosened ADU regulations in a broad rewrite of the city’s zoning law; earlier this summer, the Arlington County Board voted unanimously to do the same.

“The reality of our neighborhoods has already changed, ” said Arlington board member Erik Gutshall (D), with more households looking to accommodate family members across generations. “I prefer to describe what we’re doing now as updating our zoning ordinances.”

Other jurisdictions have taken more drastic steps. In December, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning, opening the door to apartments and multiple dwellings on any available piece of land. Earlier this month, Oregon’s legislature followed suit.

“The vision of suburbia that people have is just not sustainable anymore in terms of climate change, in terms of social and economic equity,” said Hurley, the urban planning expert. “It needs to change.”

Standing outside the council building on July 9, Gail Weiss, 58, vehemently disagreed. “They’re blowing up single-family home zoning,” she said. “And for what?”

The longtime Bethesda resident sees the zoning proposal as part of the all-Democratic council’s “leftist political agenda.” Residents who cannot afford to live in the county, she said, should move.

Dan McHugh, a 37-year-old Republican political consultant from Rockville, said his opposition stems from what he sees as the changing demographics of Montgomery, which became a majority-minority jurisdiction in 2010.

McHugh said the county, where he grew up, is “going in a direction where it could end up like Prince George’s,” a neighboring county that is one of the wealthiest majority-African-American suburbs in the nation. When pressed on what he meant, McHugh said: “Our taxes are up, our crime is up, and our schools are turning into a complete joke! How is any of that good?”

Other opponents tried to distance themselves from such arguments. But they, too, balked at the changes auxiliary dwellings could bring.

“I’m not looking to make sure that the skin color of Olney stays the same, and, frankly, I find that disgusting,” said IT consultant Matt Quinn, 61, a political independent and president of the Greater Olney Civic Association, which represents 35 homeowners associations in the northern part of the county.

“We’re paying our taxes, we’re keeping our yards clean, our children are going to school,” he said. “Why is it that we need to change here?”

Karissa Miller, 25, lived in an ADU for two years and said she was angered by some of the testimony against the bill at a hearing in February. “There were really heavy overtones of racism and classism,” the Oregon native said.

Miller, who works for a nonprofit, said it was “a godsend” when she found her dwelling in Montgomery Village in 2017. She had been living with her sister, north of Frederick, and commuting 90 minutes to work.

When Drenelda Hills, a retired nurse, built her small cottage at the back of her son’s house in Silver Spring nine years ago, some of her neighbors asked whether she was trying to “ruin the neighborhood,” she recalled. Hills, 81, said she was surprised such opposition has persisted.

“My advice for the people who want to do accessory apartments is, go forward,” she said. “Don’t be intimidated.”

'A planned place'

Some supporters of the amendment dismiss opposition as a classic case of NIMBYism. Experts say it is not so straightforward. NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard.”

Trina Leonard, a Democrat, lives with her husband and two children in a single-family home in Bethesda. The retired consultant said they bought the house precisely because of Montgomery’s history of “reliable zoning rules. . . . This is a planned place.”

The amendment, she added, “betrays who we are and what we have, which we’ve meticulously constructed over the years.”

That sense of betrayal was palpable among protesters after the final work session on the amendment.

“Well, I’m not happy,” said Ann Hingston, 72, a retired federal employee. “I just don’t know who is driving this. Where did this come from?”

For half an hour, the homeowners lingered in the council hearing room, swapping notes on the bill, taking jabs at council members and sharing stories from “Old Montgomery.”

The way things are going, someone said, perhaps they should all move to North Carolina.

As the last attendees trickled out, Ellen Paul, a Rockville resident in her 50s, turned to Hingston and considered her question.

“Yes. Why now?” Paul asked. “Why us, why here?”

We need more housing. Local governments are standing in the way.

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