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My Thrive Montgomery 2050 Public-Hearing Testimony

My Thrive Montgomery 2050 Public-Hearing Testimony

Thrive Montgomery 2050 is “a general plan for the county with a 30-year horizon. It sets a vision for the county and encompasses broad, county-wide policy recommendations for land use, zoning, housing, the economy, equity, transportation, parks and open space, the environment, and historic resources.” If you’re concerned with equity and opportunity — for human development, economic vitality, and environmental progress — and believe as I do that land-use policy can advance us in these causes, then you’ll want to look into this plan.

The Montgomery County Planning Board held a Thrive Montgomery 2050 public hearing on November 19, 2020. The following is my hearing testimony:

I like the Thrive Montgomery 2050 initiative and I very much appreciate Montgomery Planning’s work.

The majority of comments you will hear will be high-level and values based. I’m going to be very specific and focus on just three points. The first two are narrow:

1) The document discusses “missing middle” housing, the desirability of changing zoning to enable wider creation of smaller, multi-unit buildings. Cool. However, Action 1.1.4.a calls for housing “particularly in areas located within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of rail and bus rapid transit (BRT).” Let’s develop a robust action plan that will bring housing-diversity benefits to all areas, prioritizing high-promise areas — as you’re doing now with the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan — with others slated to come later.

2) I absolutely love Action 4.3.1.a: “Eliminate motor vehicle parking minimums for new development projects in downtowns, town centers, and rail and BRT corridors to encourage travel by walking, bicycling, and transit,” but it should be extended to adjacent areas as well, perhaps with that same “15-minute walk or bike ride” criterion. I also appreciate Action 5.2.1.b’s language about “redeveloping surface parking lots and underutilized property” but that action shouldn’t be limited to “mixed-income housing at employment centers.” I’m thinking, in particular, about adaptive reuse of office parks such as Rock Spring.

3) Point 10 under Trends and Challenges is “We need to look for regional solutions” (page 23). The narrative states, “we have strong ties to the Baltimore region. We must consider how to take advantage of our proximity to the economic opportunities available in neighboring jurisdictions, including major job centers, colleges and universities, and cultural and recreational attractions. We also should consider regional solutions to the challenges we face and think of Montgomery County as part of a larger ecosystem.”

The 1964 Wedges and Corridors featured 6 corridors in an asterisk design. One of those corridors was along I-95 (and the railway line) in Prince George’s County, paralleling the Prince George’s-Montgomery border, with a direct connection to Baltimore-Washington Airport.

Montgomery County did precious little to take advantage of this corridor, really prior to the last decade’s development in White Oak. Think what we might have gained if Montgomery County had worked with Prince George’s to pursue East County corridor development over the last half century, including lessened development pressure on Bethesda and American Legion Bridge congestion.

Ingredients are in place, or soon will be. The Intercounty Connector, while ill-conceived, is now an underutilized reality connecting points west to I-95. We have our first bus rapid transit on Route 29, and construction has started on another east-west connector, the Purple Line, which crosses the the southern ends of the corridor in Silver Spring and in Langley Park. Yet corridor cities and areas such as Hillandale, Burtonsville, and Fairland remain in sore need of attention.

The only explicit mention of East County I could find in the Thrive 2050 document was a one-liner, “Policy 3.3.4: Create new educational and workforce development opportunities in the East County,” with only one specific idea, “Explore creating a fourth Montgomery College campus in the East County.” I would have liked to see much more than this in the document. I hope this time we will truly plan regional solutions, with special focus on East County revitalization in cooperation with Prince George’s and Howard Counties, pursuant in particular to Goal 3.2, “Grow vibrant commercial centers,” and the policy points under it.

More & Better Farming With Solar Panels: In support of MontCo ZTA 20-01

More & Better Farming With Solar Panels: In support of MontCo ZTA 20-01

I thought I’d share a letter I sent today (April 12 2020) to the Montgomery County Council in support of a pending zoning text amendment, ZTA 20-01, introduced by Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker and co-sponsored by Councilmember Craig Rice. I hope the council will enact the ZTA!

Councilmembers,

I continue to support ZTA 20-01, which would allow the limited installation of solar facilities in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve. This legislation would allow significant ramp-up of Montgomery County’s local capacity to generate renewable energy and advance us toward meeting our county’s Climate Emergency goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2027.

An interesting and relevant article came across the TCM (Climate Mobilization) e-mail list on Friday, “After COVID-19, Here Comes More & Better Farming With Solar Panels” (https://cleantechnica.com/2020/04/09/after-covid-19-here-comes-more-better-farming-with-solar-panels/).

Pulling a quote: “Farmers are beginning to learn how to do their farming within solar arrays, and in a new green twofer, solar arrays could actually help push the regenerative agriculture movement into the mainstream.”

The focus of the article is “A new solar project soon to start construction on a farm in Grafton, Massachusetts [that] is aiming to do double duty as a holistic preservation tool that helps improve soil and enhance nutrition for grazing animals. The ultimate goal is to create a more sustainable farm economy and cultivate the next generation of farmers.”

This sort of innovation — advancing both our climate response and sustainable agriculture — is precisely what ZTA 20-01 would enable!

Montgomery County Can ‘Densify’ Without Disruption

Montgomery County Can ‘Densify’ Without Disruption

Affordable housing is in short supply in the Washington DC area. You’d think we could simply build more housing, but no aspect of development and land-use planning around here is easy. That’s particularly true where I live, in Montgomery County.

Current zoning and land-use policies block simple steps such as construction of smaller, multi-unit buildings, townhouses, and other forms of “missing middle” housing. They severely restrict homeowners’ ability to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties and they limit apartment-building construction along major transit corridors. These higher-density land uses — more units in a given land area = higher density — would lower the land cost per unit, lowering the price tag and boosting affordability.

We should “densify” because people should be able to live close to work and amenities, and fewer and shorter trips mean fewer cars on the road, less fossil-fuel consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Equity, environmentalism, traffic congestion, and affordability for all income levels dictate action. They dictate reforms that facilitate creating additional housing. Montgomery County has studied the matter, but a study isn’t a plan, and one like the county’s that prejudges acceptable steps won’t lead to needed change. Zoning is not sacrosanct.

We could radically change policy by eliminating zoning as in Houston, “America’s worst designed city,” where city codes do not address land use. Raise your hand if you like the possibility of “a taqueria next to a high rise that is next to an erotic boutique that is next to a strip mall with a banh mi shop,” and next to single-family homes. I didn’t think so. I wouldn’t, although I like the “diversity, the blending of cultures, and a general attitude where everybody gets along with his or her neighbors.” So let’s try semi-radical…

Minneapolis is likely to pass uniform upzoning in 2019, including reforms to allow up to three dwelling units on an individual lot in all residential neighborhoods and by allowing multifamily housing on select public transit routes, with higher densities along high-frequency routes and near transit stations. I see these reforms as a natural progression that we can and should consider.

What’s key is form, the types and sizes of allowed structures. I’ll quote a recent article that studies the experience in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

“Putting form rather than use at the center of the zoning process can help mitigate the most exclusive aspects of traditional single-family zoning, says Marta Goldsmith, director of the Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America. ‘I think that form-based codes can create opportunities to build additional units while maintaining the character of the neighborhood,’ Goldsmith says. ‘They can do it by slightly increasing heights or densities while maintaining the form of single-family neighborhoods.'”

So how about if we systematically rezone to allow duplexes, triplexes, and quads within neighborhoods currently zoned for Residential Detached construction (a.k.a. single-family homes)? Montgomery County already has that on the edges of my neighborhood, in Takoma Park. Let’s take a look.

The image below is a screen shot from Montgomery County’s MC Atlas information system. My home is to the right of the one where the red dot is located. Most of my neighborhood — the entirety of the area in yellow — is zoned R-60. You’re allowed a single-family home in a lot that’s 6,000 sq. ft. or larger. But you’ll note two small R-20 carve-outs — the R-20 areas, where lots may be as smalls 2,000 sq. ft., are brown — below the red dot. The carve-outs house a 13-unit condo apartment building and houses that are divided into apartments, which are both also allowed in R-20 zones. There’s a larger R-20 area to the right in the image, a long block of Takoma Park’s Carroll Avenue with many houses divided into apartments.

Typical Montgomery County residential zoning that allows very limited housing diversity.

This sort of development hasn’t harmed my neighborhood and it wouldn’t harm yours. There are several ways the County Council could allow it. Two involve zoning map amendments, which change which zoning rules apply in particular areas.

One approach is to change the zoning of selected Residential Detached areas to R-20 or R-30, which allow a mix of duplexes and small apartment buildings. Wider use of the R-20 and R-30 designations would also facilitate creation of smaller homes on less land via property subdivision, making these neighborhoods much more affordable. Nothing would force a current property owner to subdivide a property. Keep your large lot if you want.

An alternative is to apply an overlay zone with rules that supersede those of base zone designations such as R-200, R-90, R-60, and R-40. We already have a number of overlays, covering specific areas and also “floating” zones that are applied to multiple, non-contiguous areas. For example, commercial areas in my part of the county are part of the Takoma Park/East Silver Spring Commercial Revitalization (TPESS) overlay zone. Others include Chevy Chase Neighborhood Retail (CCNR) and Germantown Transit Mixed Use (GTMU). I’d welcome county creation of a Takoma Park Commercial/Residential overlay that would allow the city to take progressive steps that might not fly at this time in other parts of the county.

Unfortunately the existing floating zones that would allow densification are limited and overly restrictive. Montgomery County has Townhouse Floating (TF) and Apartment Floating (AF) designations, but to be applied, “the property must front on a nonresidential street or must confront or abut a property that is in a Residential Townhouse, Residential Multi-Unit, Commercial/Residential, Employment, or Industrial zone.”

How about creation of a Missing Middle Floating (MMF) zone, applicable anywhere, that would allow townhouses, multi-unit houses, and small apartment buildings?

We could also create new residential-neighborhood housing by changing the rules in established Residential Detached zones including Residential Estate areas. A modest and easy step would be to get rid of unnecessary restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

“An ADU is a smaller, independent residential dwelling unit located on the same lot as a stand-alone (i.e., detached) single-family home,” according to the American Planning Association. “ADUs go by many different names throughout the U.S., including accessory apartments, secondary suites, and granny flats.” My lot is 7,500 sq. ft. and could easily fit a second, smaller home in the back yard. My backyard neighbor’s property — the red-dot lot in the image above — is 19,058 sq. ft. and could actually be legally subdivided into three properties within our R-60 zone! But even smaller lots have room for an additional, smaller structure.

(Not coincidentally: Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer is hosting a policy forum on Accessory Dwelling Units on Saturday, January 19, 10 am to noon. The event will be at the County Council office building, 100 Maryland Ave, Rockville, in the main hearing room, and will cover legislation and coalition building.)

Finally, we could add density within existing zoning by streamlining subdivision of larger parcels. Current rules are onerous!

Subdivision allows construction within existing zoning rules.

By way of illustration, I’ll zoom in on the MC Atlas image I used above, focusing on a couple of properties a few blocks from my home. Look just to the right of the house symbol: two properties carved out of a larger, rectangular property. I’m told that subdivision happened in the late ’80s or early ’90s. Each property of the two is over 6,000 sq. ft. and therefore conforms with the R-60 zoning, and note that the area’s historic-district designation was not an impediment.

Numerous county properties are large enough to be subdivided, within existing zoning designations.

I’ve sketched out several ways we could densify. We could allow multi-unit housing and expanded apartment-building construction via (reworked) overlay zones and via selective upzoning. We could liberalize existing zones to allow ADUs and to diversify the housing types allowed. We could take these steps without major disruption.

Anticipating an objection: True, Montgomery County enacted a completely rewritten zoning ordinance just a few years ago, in 2014. But zoning code — and the guidelines captured in Master Plans and Sector Plans — aren’t sacrosanct. The County Council has considered 80 zoning text amendments (ZTAs) in the five years since the current code’s adoption, adopting 61 of them.

We could start with smaller areas or we could go wide. For example, it’s likely the City of Takoma Park will seek a local map amendment soon, covering the R-60 property that Washington Adventist Hospital will vacate later this year when it relocates to White Oak. Densification should be a goal. Overlay zones provide an excellent way to go wide, to densify communities and types of area that are ready for it, and I see no good reason not to make incremental county-wide changes, for instance to allow free-standing ADUs in all Residential Detached zones.

The one rule that’s sacred is that Montgomery County shouldn’t let convention stifle innovation, given our pressing need to create new affordable housing.