Thursday, December 8, 2011

Zoning Code Rewrite for Montgomery County

Before starting this discussion, it's important to understand the difference between the master plan process and zoning. Zoning is the codification of rules that govern what can be built or what uses are allowable under a specific zoning classification.  In the creation of a master plan, specific land parcels are assigned to zoning classifications. An owner of a property can look up the zoning classification for his/her property and should be able, from the zoning code, to determine what can and cannot be built there and what uses are allowable.

The following information is from a community meeting conducted last night by Parks and Planning at the Trinity Lutheran Church on Old Georgetown Road (thank you, Trinity, for donating the space!). This effort is my interpretation and understanding of the presentation.

Parks and Planning has been working on a new zoning code for the past three years.
The process is available to the public at
Here are some background stats for our county:
1. The last rewrite was in 1977.
2. 49% of the county is in the agricultural reserve and parks, leaving 51% as "develop-able"
3. Of the 51%, only 4% remains today as available for new construction of any kind (as opposed to tear-downs and infill). the rest has been built upon.
4. 42% of the county land is residential, 97% of which is zoned for single family dwellings. Only 2.5% is multi-family residential.

 The current zoning code is the most complicated and redundant code in the country. There are 121 zoning categories, and the code is in excess of 1152 pages long. There are many pages of charts simply listing the zoning categories; each one has multiple references and footnotes. It is extremely difficult for anyone who wants to build something here to figure out what they are allowed to do.

The new code is not finalized, but is reaching the stages for public comment, further refinement, and eventually, will be brought to the County Council for adoption. It will have a single chart page with all possible classifications. Once online, the public can click on a classification and be brought to all relevant information about allowable building envelope and uses.

Uses for any given classification will be P (Permitted), L (Limited), or C (Conditional). The old category of  "special exception" will now be Conditional Use.

Examples of the new classifications are:
RLD20 (Residential Low Density, 20,000 sq. ft. minimum lot size), which replaces R200
RMD9 (Residential Medium Density, 9,000 sq. ft. minimum lot size), which replaces R90
EOF (Employment Office) will be a new commercial category. There will be several other E.. categories for science, education uses.

The residential categories will not change permitted uses from those in the current residential zoning code. Rumors of commercial activity or multi-family uses in currently-zoned residential neighborhoods are untrue. There will be some relaxing of standards for accessory or "granny" dwellings, allowing a maximum 800 sq. ft. attached accessory dwelling or 1200 sq. ft. detached accessory dwelling. There will be specific requirements for parking, limitation to number of residents, and limits on the number of such dwellings on a residential block. These do not allow two-family rental housing, but are designed for an owner-occupant to have an additional dwelling space within their own property.

The most noticeable changes to the zoning code, including in the residential categories, will be the concept of "setback planes." Currently, setbacks are based on the "footprint" of a building, with each zoning category specifying how many feet a side yard, front yard, or rear yard is to be set back from the lot line. There are also height limitations do not correct for topography (slope). The new code will introduce the equivalent of a 3-D "box" into which the new house must fit. There will be standards to determine how much a new building may pierce the box, known in the code as planes. This will prevent a new house from towering over its neighbors and will be easier to understand for builders and homeowners seeking to construct within an existing neighborhood.

The various Employment categories will be written to allow for different levels of mixed-use so that a new commercial development may have retail on the ground floor with residential units above. Current zoning only allows mixed use in certain transit areas, where the new zoning was imposed on top of old, outdated commercial zoning. In addition, developer applicants for new construction will have clear standards to meet. They may have the option of adding space or other design elements that they want by selecting public amenities from an established list to add to their project. During this meeting, there was discussion about bringing the public into the sketch plan process (early in the approval process) so that public input is gathered before county staff and the developers come to an private agreement.

In a discussion of the unfriendly nature of Executive Boulevard for transit and non-vehicular access, it was noted that this commercial area will be in the White Flint 2 master plan. Now that the White Flint Sector Plan has been adopted, this area will be examined next. It will be rezoned with the new classifications so that it is likely to include some residential and retail uses in the future.

Plans for a WalMart in the Pike Center (currently, Office Depot, Bagel City, TGIFridays are there with other retail stores) were discussed. So close to the Twinbrook Metro station, this property is decidedly unsuitable for a retailer that is 100% vehicle-dependent. The discussion of zoning for this property centered on how zoning could encourage transit-friendly uses and discourage a WalMart-type use.

The director of Parks and Planning, Rollin Stanley (who was the presenter at this meeting with several of his staff), has a blog. Go to and click on The Director's Blog.

Again, the zoning rewrite is available on It is a work in process, and appears to be a vast improvement over the current system.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Great Site for Innovation and Energy Consumption Information

I've added a new link in the panel to the right... check it out, the Smithsonian Magazine has an online site devoted to eco-issues. Come back to it often for all new information.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Recreation & Culture in North Bethesda

Here are just a few places near Tilden Woods, Old Farm, Walnut Woods, and Luxmanor...three swim clubs, Strathmore Arts, Strathmore Music, Davis Library, JCC community center, and Tilden Woods Park. 

And Here's video tour of Cabin John Regional Park

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Montrose Parkway Degrading Cabin John Watershed

Thank you to Eliot Applestein for taking these photos, writing the analysis, and bringing it to the county's attention. Please let us know if you want to work on getting this problem addressed and fixed, insofar as the damage from the parkway can be fixed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New solar-powered charging dock for electric vehicles

Wildwood is the first location to have a tracking solar dock for charging any electric vehicle. The charging dock is powered by a solar array that uses GPS to follow the sun's movements and deliver maximum charge to the cars. Any electric or hybrid plug-in will be compatible with this dock, such as a Nissan Leaf, Prius plug-in, or Chevy Volt. Park your car, plug it in, and go shopping. When you come back to the car, you will have gained approx. 20 miles of driving range for each hour you were busy in the shopping center.

Check out the details and photos at the link below:

EV Charging Station on Old Georgetown Road

Friday, August 5, 2011

Want to test drive a Nissan Leaf electric car????

Nissan has set up a demo station at Montgomery Mall (Westlake Terrace side near Macys) till sometime on Sunday, August 7. I walked in, registered, and was able to ask all kinds of questions, examine the car, drive it, and talk with a rep of the company that installs the charging docks. See below for my impressions.

Drivability: the car handles and drives very well, is comfortable, and includes nav, bluetooth, and other cool items. The more expensive model (approx. $37k before gov't rebate of about $7500) has a solar panel that trickle-charges the accessories, so the radio, etc. won't stress the batteries. It also has a backup camera and quick-charge outlet in addition to the standard charging outlet on the front of the car.
Batteries: lithium-ion cells set up on a rack that is bolted below the seats so that it can be removed from below the car when it is on a rack. Warranted for 8 yrs. or 100,000 miles, but engineered to still have 75% of charging capacity after 10 years. The nice thing about this is that single cells can be replaced, as opposed to my Civic Hybrid, which has one large battery. The battery array health is evaluated electronically in a yearly service, so that any poorly performing cells can be swapped out. Nice design.
Charging: charging takes 8 hours in the standard method with a 220v dock. Nissan sends someone to your house to evaluate the house's ability to have a charging dock (photo above) before they sell you a car. Standard dock installation costs about $2500, with a 30% gov't rebate till the end of this year. It requires a 40 amp breaker on your house box with 220v. The dock has a cord of about 15' to reach the car. Could be longer. The dock is completely weatherproof, and the rep said that you could put the plug into a bucket of water with no ill effects. It only runs current when it senses that it is hooked up to the vehicle. The company, AV ( is installing charging docks all over the place, including workplaces, condos, etc. I was told that there will be one soon at the end of Democracy Blvd (I'm assuming they meant somewhere around Wildwood Shopping Center).  It is possible to quick-charge in 30 minutes with the beefier outlet and corresponding dock (avail. only in a commercial setting, so they are working to install them along I-5 in California to facilitate trips longer than 100 miles).
Range: it goes an average of 100 miles per charge, according to the company, but that will vary with the electric usage you have while driving (heating, AC, radio, etc. along with your driving habits). Long trips would require a coffee stop periodically with a 30 minute quick-charge. Not convenient, but most of our driving is around town.
Power drains: this was interesting. Apparently, heating in winter is a bigger drain than summer AC. The 2012 Leaf is designed (all models) with heated seats and steering wheel so that the driver and any passengers can warm themselves directly through their seats and keep the air temp in the cabin cooler than they normally would have. The engineers have determined that this cuts the power load substantially, allowing the car to travel further per charge.

All in all, a very, very interesting car, and I think it's ready for prime-time if your driving habits are mainly local.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Regular maintenance can keep you from costly home repairs

Here's a great checklist that I came across; it will give you monthly and seasonal items to check into and has links to information about each item:
Home Maintenance Checklist

And on a similar note, check out Pro-Tec Inspections' terrific page of links. Rob Hopkin at Pro-Tec is a highly respected and very experienced home inspector (with tremendous credentials) and has a reference link page:
Helpful Links Page from Pro-Tec

Monday, July 4, 2011

Transit Heaven! Take a look at Vienna, Austria

I just returned from 11 heavenly days in Vienna, and the transit system there deserves some serious analysis for possible emulation. For the entire time I was there, I never scanned a farecard, bought a coin, pushed through an entrance barrier, or had to interact with any bus or street trolley driver. How does Vienna manage to run a world-class transit system that cover the ENTIRE city and its suburbs, running nearly every mode every 10 minutes or so?

Street trolleys in front of the Opera House
On this trip, I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law, who were living in the city for 4 months while Jared was teaching at the university. By the time my daughter, Rachel, and I arrived for our visit, my sister was thoroughly familiar with the system and had purchased two passes for us. The first, a Vienna Pass, was good for 4 days and entitled us to reduced entrance fees to nearly every museum and palace tour, many shops and cafes, and unlimited access to the transit system. The second pass was a standard weekly pass, used by Viennese residents, that simply covered all transit. There is no way to purchase a fare for a single trip. The passes are sold for time periods, daily, several days, weekly, monthly. After purchasing a pass, it becomes active once it is stamped at one of the time-stamping machines that are everywhere, and it then goes into your pocket or wallet and carried whenever you travel.

Enforcement is intermittent and unannounced. Enforcement officials, called Kontrol, will occasionally board a bus, Metro, or tram and check the passengers' passes. If caught riding without a current pass, the passenger is removed from transit and given a fine. Here's how the system is effective...the fines are really, really hefty. Therefore, it doesn't pay to try to evade paying for a pass, since getting caught will be truly punishing.

The result, from the point of view of the passenger, is that, once the pass has been purchased and activated, it makes sense to use transit rather than taxis or private vehicles under almost every circumstance. You've already paid for the transit, and there is no impediment whatsoever to getting on and off any modality. Step on, step off, no gates, no fumbling for farecard or money, no machines in the way. Just get on a bus, get off, wait no more than 10 minutes for the trolley, get on it, go wherever you want, get on and off the subway, etc. It was easier than walking or even trying to hail a cab.

From the point of view of the transit authorities, there is no need for all the machinery that monitors entrances and exits, no holdup at buses for payment at the driver's door, access to all forms of transportation can be at any door (front, middle, back), and the manpower requirements for each station are dramatically reduced. What is added is the enforcement squad. If the fines for noncompliance are not very high, $100-$250 for instance, this system will not work. It will also not work if the transit system is spotty in coverage and unreliable in frequency.

When it works, as it does in Vienna, the incentives for the public to keep a current pass and then use transit extensively are very high. The fee has already been paid and the transit is there for the riding. As much fun as it was to play with my daughter and sister, visiting beautiful and interesting sites, eating pastries (yum, yum!), and learning new things at every turn, one of my greatest joys was popping on and off buses, trams, and subways with no obstacles whatsoever. It was truly transit heaven!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Do you know your "walk score?"

Part of the effort to reduce greenhouse gases and improve our quality of life is related to how easily we can get to work, shops, and recreation without overusing our automobiles. The Smart Growth movement emphasizes clustering housing with retail and commercial locations, especially around areas that have transit options for longer distance travel (outside of the neighborhood). There is a website, albeit very limited in its algorithms, that helps prospective buyers and renters know if their new home is within walking distance of multiple amenities. Go to and plug in any address. It reveals a map showing the amenities nearby and applies a score to the location. 100 is best, 0 means you live on the moon. Unfortunately, it will not rate how "bikable" the location is, since many homes have great resources in biking distance, whereas the walking distance is very limited. There appears to be a bike forum on the walkscore site, so, perhaps there will be some enhancements in this direction. Walkscore also gives transit ratings for locations.