Wednesday, July 25, 2007

County reviewing proposed zoning amendment

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A proposed zoning text amendment that would allow residential development in some areas zoned as commercial could bring a mixed-use project in Wheaton one step closer to reality.

The project, sponsored by AvalonBay Communities Inc., an Alexandria, Va., based development company, would include about 320 housing units and first-floor retail on the current site of an office building on the corner of Blueridge and Georgia avenues in downtown Wheaton.

If the plan were approved, a Safeway supermarket would move from its current site a few blocks south on Georgia Avenue to the first floor of that building.

The text amendment to the Montgomery County Zoning Ordinance was drafted by the Wheaton Redevelopment Program office specifically to address projects near central business districts that have been restricted to only commercial development.

The change would specifically allow for residential density to exceed two units per acre, which is what the current zoning ordinance calls for.

‘‘We wanted to be very, very specific with the language to make sure any community concerns with this development [were addressed] and that there really weren’t obstacles to it,” said Pete McGinnity, manager of business redevelopment for the Wheaton Redevelopment Program.

The project got favorable reviews by the Montgomery County Planning Board in October, but board members still voted to deny it because the current zoning did not allow it.

McGinnity said the project would bring a good mixed-use residential and retail project close to the downtown area and is part of the county’s idea of ‘‘smart growth.”

This text amendment is directed to an area outside the Wheaton Retail Preservation Overlay Zone, which was amended last year to allow for denser and taller projects in the central business district in Wheaton.

Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for the county executive, said that the text amendment was being reviewed by the county attorney. It will then go to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) for his approval before being brought before the Montgomery County Council.

‘‘The idea is a mixed-use development, which could also open up some additional properties for more ‘smart growth’ housing for the Metro [areas],” Lacefield said.

The Wheaton Metro is about five blocks away from the proposed AvalonBay project.

Lacefield said his understanding was that Leggett was generally in favor of it, but would not make a recommendation to the County Council until he had time to review the amendment. The County Council may have the chance to decide on the amendment before the session closes at the end of the month or when the council reconvenes in the fall.

Chris Helsabeck, development director for AvalonBay, said that he would not comment on the specifics of the amendment.

‘‘We have seen the draft, but at this point we don’t have any comment because it is still an early draft,” Helsabeck said.