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Special Protection Areas

Special Protection Areas (SPA)

Montgomery County is home to more than 1,500 miles of streams that provide habitat for diverse aquatic life and wildlife. A healthy stream provides recreational and aesthetic benefits for residents, contributes to clean drinking water and protects the Chesapeake Bay.

Stream quality is greatly affected by the land uses and development activities that occur in their watersheds.In 1994, the County Council established a program to protect water quality in areas where streams, wetlands, and related natural features are of very high quality and worthy of special protection.

The county’s Special Protection Areas (SPA) require protections beyond standard environmental laws, regulations, and guidelines for land development and certain uses. The Planning Board through its regulatory function, the Department of Permitting Services, and the Department of Environmental Protection enforce SPA rules.

SPA Maps

Use our interactive map to pinpoint an address in or near an SPA.


The SPA law(opens in a new tab) calls for stringent water resource protection measures in new and expanded development projects. It does not apply to properties with existing residences or other legally existing land uses if such uses are not changing. Environmental overlay zones, which set limits on impervious surfaces, apply in the Upper Paint Branch(opens in a new tab)Upper Rock Creek(opens in a new tab) and Ten Mile Creek(opens in a new tab) SPAs.

Activities and projects subject to SPA regulations and guidelines:

  • Land-disturbing activity on publicly-owned property
  • Land-disturbing activity requiring a new or amendment to a development plan, diagrammatic plan, schematic development plan, project plan, special exception, preliminary plan of subdivision, or site plan.
  • Any land-disturbing activity in the Upper Paint Branch SPA
  • Note: Except in the Upper Paint Branch SPA, the SPA law provides for exemptions and grandfathering for certain land uses or properties with limited proposed impervious surface coverage. Learn more.

SPA Roles and Responsibilities

Local Government
  • Stream monitoring before, during and after development to document stream health over time.
  • Multi-agency review of land development projects, requiring developers to work closely with local environmental agencies to minimize adverse environmental impacts.
  • Conservation plan for each SPA describing conditions of the major streams and identifying critical features that need to be protected.
  • Annual report summarizing current and past land development activities and results of stream monitoring data.
  • Minimize impervious surface coverage on the project site. The Environmental Overlay Zone for the Upper Paint Branch SPA(opens in a new tab) requires a limit on coverage for new projects. In the Upper Rock Creek(opens in a new tab) and Ten Mile Creek SPAs, limits on impervious surfaces are required for certain types of projects. The Ten Mile Creek SPA is covered by two overlay zones: the Clarksburg East(opens in a new tab) and Clarksburg West(opens in a new tab) environmental overlay zones. In each of these overlay zones, planners define impervious surfaces more broadly than the definition used for meeting stormwater management requirements. View the Board’s policy on impervious surfaces(opens in a new tab) and limits in environmental overlay zones.
  • For projects where only part of the site lies within a SPA watershed, the watershed boundary is defined by pre-development topography, a standard(opens in a new tab) set by the Planning Board in 1996 during review of the Drayton Farms Preliminary Plan.
  • Construct both temporary and permanent engineered mitigation structures. Temporary sediment and erosion control structures minimize sediment and water runoff during construction; permanent stormwater management facilities slow water runoff from developed areas to minimize erosion and provide controls to minimize pollutants entering water bodies.
  • Protect natural area buffers around streams, wetlands, seeps, springs, and floodplains by creating conservation easements or park dedication. These environmental buffers are wider for SPA wetlands, seeps, and springs than those typically required.
  • Protect and plant forest in environmental buffers.
  • Monitoring to document effectiveness of structures in minimizing water-related impacts.

How You Can Help Protect Streams

Even if the SPA regulations and guidelines do not apply to your property, you can still play an important role in preserving the health of streams and the natural features of the SPA watershed.

  • Be aware if you have a conservation easement on your property. If so, your property has fragile natural features that are important in keeping SPA streams healthy. Depending on the type of conservation easement, activities within easement areas are limited.
  • Preserve or plant native trees and shrubs along your neighborhood streams. Trees and shrubs shade and cool stream water, roots keep stream banks stable, and leaves and small twigs are food for stream-dwelling animals. Learn about our tree-planting coupon available through the Reforest Montgomery program.
  • Avoid or minimize the use of herbicides and pesticides, especially near streams and wetlands.
  • Use fertilizers wisely.
  • Always take hazardous household wastes (motor oil, antifreeze, etc.) to a county collection site(opens in a new tab). Don’t dump such wastes into storm drains, streams, or on the ground. Report illegal dumping.
  • Be aware of unusual changes in your neighborhood streams and report these changes to DEP’s Watershed Management Division at 240-777-7736.