Mounting traffic congestion, obesity rates and shrinking undeveloped real estate are behind some of the major changes proposed for the Montgomery County zoning code.
“I hate to use the word ‘smart-growth,’ but it’s still perhaps the best way to refer to it,” Interim Planning Director Rose Krasnow said of the philosophy behind the changes.
A three-year effort to rewrite Montgomery’s complex zoning code was driven by more than how unwieldly the code, at 1,400 pages and 120 zones, had become.
Behind the effort also was an awareness of how little available land remains for development, how congested traffic in the county has become, and how many people are reportedly obese, she said.
This month, the rewrite will be in the hands of the planning commission, which will begin its work to hone the document before it moves to the County Council for final revision and approval.
The rewrite is the first since 1977 and, as it stands now, the document has been cut to 325 pages with 40 zones.
Gesturing to the heavy binder to her left, Krasnow said the current code had was famous for its project-specific footnotes and was thick with overly-similar zones.
Rather than use footnotes again, those that still are applicable have been incorporated into the code language itself and zones with similar uses have been consolidated.
Nancy Regelin, attorney in the real estate department of Potomac-based Schulman Rogers, said the rewrite primarily focuses on commercial zones, and provides flexibility that is in step with the county’s migration toward mixed-use development.
Only a small amount of the county remains available for development, Krasnow said.
With few green fields left to carve into communities, developers are turning to the blanks slates that do remain in the urbanizing county for redevelopment, parking lots.
“We know, for example, that we have most [of] our primary, remaining undeveloped land is parking lot, surface parking lots where they don’t generate much of anything in way of tax revenues or services for residents but they are required in the zoning code, even though they're not even all being used any more,” Krasnow said.
As developable land has shrunk, traffic congestion and obesity rates that come with people living far from where they work and shop have grown, prompting recent changes in the code to combine uses and bring people closer to the things they need and do, Krasnow said.
With smart growth changes in the code, also comes revised parking.
“We have said that we have tried to keep a lot of things the same, but one of the things we are changing is the parking requirement,” Krasnow pointed out.
Rather than minimum parking requirements, the new code is proposed with maximum amounts of parking allowed and encourages developers to build parking facilities where some of the spaces are made available for the public.
Although developers are hopeful that the rewrite is a step in the right direction, Regelin said the industry is concerned key sections still were, as of late August, blank sections like that on grandfathering existing projects and developments that would not conform to the new code. Also blank was the section on alternative energy sources.
Grandfathering eventually will be addressed, Krasnow said.
But for the industry, the unknown is a concern, Regelin said.
By virtue of the legislative process, not necessarily all of the changes proposed will be incorporated into final version adopted by the county council, she said.
“What we see written here is not what is going to come out the other end,” Regelin said.
Public meetings, work sessions and hearings stand between now and when planning staff hopes to hand the rewrite over to the council in early 2013 and when the council approves the final version.
“The industry likes stability, but they also like progress and the question will be whether the zoning rewrite will be chaos or progress,” Regelin said.