Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Berliner presents homebuilding rules overhaul

Council member’s proposal reflects recommendations from task force that sought common ground for homes

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County Councilman Roger Berliner presented a legislation package on Tuesday to overhaul the county’s residential building policies.

The package reflects recommendations from an ‘‘infill development” task force that Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac convened last year in response to the many residential teardowns and rebuilds in Montgomery County.

The task force — a group of builders, architects, residents and county planning staff — were charged with finding common ground on controversial aspects of homebuilding including height and setback limits.

Berliner presented the resulting legislation Tuesday after a council briefing on the task force recommendations.

It has not yet been formally introduced to the council. No date has been set for that. Council President Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said he expects ‘‘a lively discussion” about the proposed changes.

Berliner’s goal was to clarify building rules and limit what some believe are exorbitant, oversized homes, but maintain property rights and homeowners’ freedom of personal taste.

‘‘Communities in Bethesda, Chevy Chase — but it’s also true in Silver Spring, Olney, Rockville — are struggling with this issue of how do we protect existing older neighborhoods and neighbors from homes that loom over them, deprive them of sunlight, deprive them of privacy, create more stormwater issues and change the character of the neighborhood dramatically?” Berliner said. ‘‘How do you achieve that purpose while also honoring property rights and homeowner rights? It’s recognizing those forces that make this a difficult task.”

Berliner started a sweeping evaluation of residential construction more than a year ago, after touring areas in his district where residents complained of excessively large houses. The task force met for about six months.

Berliner’s legislation seeks to:

*Set residential building size limits proportionally according to a lot’s size, not its zone

*Set at 30 percent the maximum lot coverage for lots of 6,000 square feet or less, subtracting an additional 1 percent per 1,000 additional feet up to 15,000 square feet

*Exclude porches, bay windows and chimneys from lot coverage measurements, to encourage those architectural elements

*Reduce the height limit in R-200 zones — generally single-family residential lots starting at 20,000 square feet — from 50 feet to an incremental limit of 30 to 50 feet based on lot size

*Change the way house setback limits are established

*Require the Department of Permitting Services to clarify and codify its method of calculating sloping lots, which are given credits for extra building space to make up for sloped lots

*Provide mandatory neighbor notification of home demolition and rebuild projects

*Require builders to review building guidelines adopted by the surrounding neighborhood

If the legislation makes it through unchanged, it would accomplish what a handful of municipalities have been working toward for more than a year, after the state expanded building regulation powers of local governments.

The Town of Chevy Chase and Chevy Chase Village are two municipalities now considering a broad set of new building laws to limit house size in response to the so-called mansionization trend. Both incorporated areas in Chevy Chase grappled with frustration from homeowners and the building community, while crafting proposals that in many ways run parallel with Berliner’s legislation.

Municipalities like those in Chevy Chase are allowed under state law to set their own, stricter building height, setback and lot coverage rules. Unincorporated areas like Bethesda fall under the county’s laws.