Zoning is at the heart of almost every issue that impacts the quality of
community life in Potomac. Most of us live in residential zones of one or
two acres, with the central
commercial zone in the heart of Potomac. But there are countless
exceptions throughout our community and they often come with protests and
heated debate about the intent of the code. Terms like special exception,
country inn zone, rural density transfer zone, and planned development zone
invoke confusion, and the
Montgomery County Code for these uses does not provide much
additional clarity. The complicated, difficult to use, easily misunderstood
behemoth of a document that comprises the County Code is at long last in the
process of a complete overhaul under the direction of the
Montgomery County Planning
Board. The process began over a year ago when Planning Staff began
to study the code and consider opportunities for consolidation and
streamlining the language and utility of the document. Aiding them with
stakeholder input is the Zoning Advisory Panel, a volunteer body consisting
of over 25 persons (including WMCCA’s Diana Conway), with knowledge of the
zoning code and experience with its implementation and its limitations.
Recently, the Planning Board engaged an expert consultant with experience in
drafting zoning code in other regions of the United States who promises to
help bring our code to a place where its clear interpretation will yield
clear implementation of our planning policies.
Indeed, the goals for this team and the Planning Board are lofty, and include: simplifying and streamlining the standards and process, especially development review; matching land use to development patterns; providing rationale for the development standards; modifying the language to make it consistent; using plain English, supported by tables, flow charts and graphics; and making the code more transparent and easier to understand while still respecting the Federal, state and local zoning laws. The team also promises to embrace sustainability, and we can expect to see innovations such as transit-connected development, water conservation, tree canopy requirements, and new lighting standards.
I think any stakeholder can embrace these goals and support this important work. But the strategy by which they achieve the goals is what we might find unsettling. While there is talk that the code will help established communities like Potomac maintain and preserve the character of their single-use community, there is also serious talk about a paradigm shift to address how we plan mixed-use communities to ensure neighborhood completeness, including abandoning the old density and use based standards and emphasizing instead the form and character of the community. It will be interesting to see how the new code will include standards for form without regard for density and still preserve the single use communities which comprise the bulk of the County. How will the new code preserve the environmental basis for Potomac’s low density “green wedge” so critical to the protection of the and the buffer to the Agricultural Reserve?
Concurrent with this effort and pending before the County Council is a Zoning Text Amendment to the existing Zoning Code for a new C-R zone – a mixed-use commercial and residential zone. Clearly, the new C-R zone is a glimpse of things to come, but again, it is the strategy for its implementation that we might find unsettling. As the Zoning Text Amendment is written, the new zone could be applied by sectional map amendment, and therefore the County Council would only need to find that re-zoning to the C-R Zone would be “in conformance with the zoning recommendations” of any master plan, including existing master or sector plans. This is a significant departure in process for rezoning, and has implications for any community where the C-R zone might be proposed. The only public hearing on C-R Zone has already been held.
The process for development of the new code will be lengthy, and there will be opportunity for the public to hear what is being proposed and provide stakeholder input. This could be a very exciting time for as it finally moves into the 21st century in terms of land use and planning for sustainability. But we must participate in the process to ensure that our planners preserve what is best about Montgomery County while simultaneously improving the way we look at mixed-use and commercial development.
Planning and Zoning Report – by George Barnes
Gaithersburg West: This plan, proposed by Johns Hopkins University on the site of the Banks Farm bounded by Route 28 and Muddy Branch Road, would create a Science City of very tall, high-rise buildings, dramatically increase the density of this area, and wreak havoc on the road system. The University insists that only if a viable mass transit system is built would this plan go forward, but the University is, in fact, moving forward in the face of assurances from County officials, Council members, and State transportation officials that no such system will be built because there is absolutely no money to fund it.
Environmental Report – by Ginny Barnes
Forest Conservation Law reform: Nearly five years after the sensational tree cutting incident at Swain's Lock spawned multiple efforts to bring about critically needed Forest Conservation Law amendments, our County government has utterly failed to enact anything that will stem the loss of forests and tree canopy in Montgomery County. The two sets of amendments introduced last year at the Council – one set from Park and Planning (MNCPPC) and the other from Councilmember Marc Elrich – are both dead. The time to act on them has expired and would require another lengthy process of reintroduction, committee action, etc. The previously proposed amendments never made it out of the Transportation & Environment Committee (T&E) chaired by Councilmember Nancy Floreen. The Committee (Floreen, Berliner, Leventhal) seemed unable and equally unwilling to take on the tough decisions so they punted the whole issue over to the County Executive. There it has languished for nearly ten months while Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff tried to design a matrix for use with sites large enough to qualify as forest as well as smaller lots with no forest but significant tree canopy.
Meanwhile, this failure has affected the Potomac Subregion in very specific ways on critical development plans. Currently, Public Institutional Facilities (PIF's) like schools and churches are exempt from compliance with the FCL. Both sets of amendments under consideration would have eliminated this exemption, giving plan reviewers and citizens alike a better outcome on expansion projects like the Fourth Presbyterian School on South Glen Road or the Connolly School of the Holy Child, which recently reached a controversial settlement with MNCPPC for violating the meager conservation easements on their property while still being allowed to build an artificial turf playing field.
West Montgomery County Citizens Association Newsletter
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