Montgomery County Council members said the first comprehensive revision since 1978 will make the county’s zoning laws simpler and more accessible for residents.
The council voted 7-1 Tuesday to approve the rewrite of the ordinance, which contained a host of changes and simplifications to the current 1,200-page zoning law.
Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, who was appointed to a fill a vacant seat about a month ago, abstained from the vote. Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park voted against it.
Elrich said he doesn’t see the plan as a significant step forward. Several elements in it won’t be effective or contradict ideas the council set out for the project, he said.
Council President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said the document isn’t perfect, but the changes make it easier for residents to understand the laws.
He said that despite attempts to streamline it, the new version is still hefty.
“But the point is that it’s better,” he said.
Branson, who replaced Valerie Ervin on the council in January, said she was abstaining because she wasn’t present most of the time the new version was being developed.
The rewrite dates to 2007, when the council told the county’s Planning Department to work on a rewrite to simplify and consolidate the zoning laws.
The changes also were intended to make the laws clearer and more consistent and to protect established neighborhoods while making room for the changing demographics in the county. They also were to reflect more sustainable policy goals, direct development in the county toward eliminating sprawl and have more of a focus on mixed used between residential, commercial and other types of development.
The changes will go into effect once the council approves an amended zoning map later this year.
The plan that the council approved Tuesday also reflected extensive changes and discussion by the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee and testimony at several public hearings since it was introduced in May 2013.
Much of the discussion Tuesday focused on an amendment Elrich proposed to get rid of a provision on secondary agricultural education and tourism and establish a group to review potential land uses in the county’s Agricultural Reserve.
Elrich emphasized that he had no intentions of getting rid of corn mazes, school visits or other events that drew people to county farms.
But he said the council should make sure the new rules permit everything farmland owners want.
At the same time, the county shouldn’t make changes that could lead to uses it doesn’t want, Elrich said. He gave as an example a new provision to let farms use up to 10 percent of their buildings’ square footage for educational or tourism purposes. That could allow property owners to form a private school or other purpose the county didn’t intend, he said.
But Councilman Hans Riemer said he didn’t see a grave threat of schools being formed in the Ag Reserve if a farm could only use 10 percent of its building space for a classroom.
Any education would have to be about agriculture, he said.
Rice said the council already heard feedback from people with farmland — a working group could unnecessarily delay a decision.
Rice said he’d support legislation to make any fixes council members thought were needed.
Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, who chairs the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, said she was “mystified” why the council would spend more staff time dealing with the issue after the zoning rewrite was discussed for six months.
“This is what makes our community frustrated with us,” Floreen said.