In the last decade's building boom, developers passed over White Flint's sprawling parking lots and strip malls until the county made one key change. "The moment we changed zoning to allow mixed uses they started coming out of the woodwork," said Montgomery County Planning Director Rollin Stanley.
Zoning code run amuck
|Source: Montgomery County Department of Planning|
Now White Flint is starting to boom, and planners are trying to apply that same concept in rewriting the county's zoning code, a 1,300-page document that many say has thwarted progress.
Stanley says streamlining the county's 121 zoning codes can make redevelopment simpler for developers and save time and money for the county.
"Apparently we had more zones in Montgomery County than any other place in the country," Stanley said. "That leads to complexities."
For example there are 15 zones for single-family homes, two mobile home zones that are not used anywhere (while the one mobile home park in the county is not zoned as either) and seven other zones that are not used anywhere in the county.
Of the 425 residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional uses listed, many are outdated, covering businesses like millinery shops, shoe and hat repair businesses, and variety and dry goods stores.
The draft is still in the works, but Stanley said the county envisions creating a code that applies to what the county actually looks like today -- not what it looked like more than 30 years ago when the code was last rewritten and places like Gaithersburg still had farms and rolling countryside. And with just 4 percent of developable land left, that means focusing redevelopment primarily on parking lots and strip malls that cluster along main roads.
But some are wary of simplifying zoning along major artery roads such as Connecticut Avenue that also feature well established neighborhoods.
"There's a lot we don't know and as a result we have some concerns," said Meredith Wellington, a former member of the county planning board and Chevy Chase resident. "We are hoping ... the new zones will protect and preserve the integrity of single family neighborhoods."
Wellington is a member of the District 1 Community Caucus, which includes Bethesda and White Flint, that has spoken out against encouraging too much density.
But Gerrit Knaap, a professor of urban studies and planning and member of the Zoning Advisory Panel, said the rewrite's focus on mixed-use is partly a reaction to the limited green space left in the county. Extending development into parks or the agricultural reserve, which take up a significant portion of land, is not an option, according to Stanley.
Simplifying the code can shorten the approval period for a project, which means the county spends far less money on administrative costs. But that also reduces the time in which someone could appeal the project to the courts.
However Stanley said in exchange, the process could require more certainty up front in development plans.
"So you bring in the community sooner ... and everything gets decided earlier on in the process," he said.