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.