Archive for December, 2010
Have the 1,300 pages of tangled zoning regulations provided Montgomery County with the best built environment? Does our ordinance reflect the changing landscape, and does it present a sustainable vision for the future?
We have been talking around the county about what little raw land is left to develop, and that most development will occur as infill. The county zoning ordinance stems from an era of greenfield development – building on farmland and other undeveloped “fields.” That zoning created our established neighborhoods, many of which are beloved throughout the county. Most of those residential areas connect to other uses – retail, office, etc. – via arterial roads whose environments are showing signs of wear.
While many of our neighborhoods are undeniably great, many of them can be considered a one- dimensional environment of separated uses, and that environment detracts from our quality of life. The cost of maintaining infrastructure, the vehicles miles traveled to buy a gallon of milk or pick up dry cleaning and the time spent moving from one activity to the next are all the result of our land use patterns.
Limited Area for Change
Land zoned for single-family housing accounts for 98 percent of our residentially zoned land, 30 percent of the county’s land area, 75 percent of the built area, and 69 percent of the housing stock. Combined with the 48 percent of the county preserved for parks and the Agricultural Reserve, we have very little land left to build on.
limited revenue growth
Less than 2 percent of the county land area is zoned for commercial and mixed-use development. While this figure always surprises people, think about how far you have to travel to reach a service or retail store.
This low percentage of commercial / mixed-use zoning threatens the county’s fiscal health. Some of our budget problems stem from a reliance on housing for tax revenue rather than taxable income from commercial uses. Having such a large percentage of land for single-family houses limits revenue that could come in from new commercial development, keeping the tax burden squarely on homeowners.
The separation of uses and the low-density landscape create barriers to public transportation. Transit is difficult to provide to low-density areas where residents need to travel great distances to jobs and services. Those neighborhoods are not well connected by roads, sidewalks or bike paths. People have to drive.
A person making the median income in MoCo has difficulty affording a median-priced home anywhere in the county. Many of the people we’d want to live here are forced to commute in from elsewhere. For example, a county hospital estimates the average commute time for employees at 45 minutes, and most of those employees are not doctors, but serve other vital roles. (For each doctor, there are about three workers making less than $50,000 per year.)
Our land use patterns keep us from maintaining a healthy mix of people varying income levels, which we need to fill a full range of professional, blue collar and service sector jobs.
Added to this is the cost of transportation. Here, transportation averages to be about 18 percent of household costs. Neighborhoods separated from jobs and transit typically means two motorists per family commuting. When gas prices spiked a year ago, we saw a jump in foreclosures. In 2007, there were 1,166 foreclosures, in 2009 there were 2,838, a 59 percent jump. This is not a sustainable pattern.
there’s no new land
Land is a finite resource. Our zoning code is based on principles rooted in the past, such as an abundance of developable land, room for roads and the money to pay for them. In reality, our landscape has changed. Our zoning and regulatory processes have to change along with it, or we run the risk of increased congestion, loss of jobs to surrounding counties, an unsustainable tax base, and a growing tab for deferred infrastructure investment.
The zoning rewrite project aims to address these challenges, preserving existing neighborhoods while looking at new directions for commercial areas restricted to single-use buildings. Should the owners of our 100 or so strips malls be prohibited from the opportunity of redeveloping to mix retail with offices and residential? Just think of the opportunity those smaller residences, literally on top of services, pose to seniors who no longer wish to drive.
While Montgomery County lacks much commercially zoned property, our arterial roads offer another way to add to the diversity of housing types near urban areas served by transit. There are many examples around the county of successful infill projects that reflect this type of low-scale development.
The first draft from our zoning consultants challenged our citizens advisory panel, called ZAP, to think about where development patterns – such as “cottage court” and “garden court” proposed to raise the level of design and bring enhanced public benefits along with a slight increase in density in some areas – could be located. Planners advocated a more conservative approach, limiting these development types to lots located on large arterial roads with high levels of transit service. The discussions at ZAP ranged from outright opposition to encouragement of the development patterns.
The discussion also pointed out that closer analysis of which arterials would be appropriate for development patterns would probably take longer than our timeframe for the zoning rewrite project. As a result, we’ll put the development patterns into a long-term study.
Over the last two years, planners have worked on the rewrite, briefing the Planning Board, County Council and members of the public at several stages. Each draft section that we release is a consultant-written draft intended as a discussion piece. The first point of discussion occurs at ZAP meetings, and ZAP members and our staff provide feedback to the consultants.
The drafts will undergo scrutiny and revision before the Planning Board is presented with a consolidated draft of the document late in 2011. Before then, there will be many opportunities to learn more. Feel free to weigh in any time at our online comment board.
We do want to hear from you about the direction of the rewrite and the draft concepts. This is the best way to avoid misinterpretations about what is being proposed. We encourage interested groups to contact us if they would like a staff presentation or discussion.