The Birds and the BLTs

The Birds and the BLTs

I visited the Audubon Naturalist Society’s bookstore at the Woodend Sanctuary on Jones Bridge Road yesterday and may again today (best binocular and birdseed prices around, especially with the 20% ANS member discount). And ANS and similar environmental groups are natural allies of smart growth and New Urbanism, as our long association with the Coalition for Smarter Growth shows.

But sometimes even friends can disagree. Those disagreements sometimes involve money. It’s like when the American Birding Association changed its bookstore policies so that you no longer get member discounts; the money goes to a for-profit bookstore which kicks some back to ABA instead. So we shop at ANS (which we might have done anyway, but still).

Maryland Ornithological Society Member

And like today’s kerfuffle. ANS and three other groups sent a letter to the Montgomery County Council about Tuesday’s hearing on the CR (Commercial/Residential) Zone. The environmental groups are concerned because an important project might get less money from developers under the CR Zone, especially in White Flint. The letter can be found here:

One of Montgomery County’s crowning glories in planning is the Agricultural Reserve. The Ag Reserve makes up much of the northern and northwestern part of the County. Density is shifted into the “down county,” while the land in the Reserve is preserved against development. The Ag Reserve is why you still see lots of green as you travel north on I-270 into Frederick. Montgomery County chose to be “green,” literally, decades before anyone else. And has kept it up over the years.

Developers pay special fees to support the Ag Reserve, which are then given to farmers who don’t sell their land to developers. The fees are known as Building Lot Terminations, or BLTs (nothing to do with the sandwich).

In older master plans, such as Germantown or Twinbrook, zoning (density) is intricately woven into a pattern of requirements on developers; they get certain rights to density. Those density rights start high, because the County requires the developers to provide certain amenities, with only a few incentives for a developer to choose from a menu of options for special amenities in exchange for higher densities. We make you do stuff, but we give you density to pay for it. Now, if you want more than we give you, you pay for more too. But only for a few things. BLTs are one of those few optional density incentives; the BLT “bonus payments” for added density can be paid on 30 percent of additional density.

In White Flint, however, that’s reversed. The White Flint Plan is innovative in many ways, and one of those is the CR Zone, which starts with low densities and provides a wide variety of incentives for providing options such as day care, green roofs or buildings, and so on. There is a maximum level of density overall and for height, with sub-limits for commercial and residential construction (to encourage mixed-use developments). But instead of requiring certain amenities, chosen by planners and forever locked in, and then giving automatic density bonuses, the CR Zone starts low and encourages the “right” kinds of amenities.

So the fundamental difference in zoning between the older zoning systems and the CR Zone to be used in White Flint is that, in the CR Zone system, density starts low, and developers can buy more density by providing things the County thinks are important. It’s carrot vs. stick — market-based planning vs. the old “central-planning,” top-down approach.

So, what about BLTs? Well, there are no BLTs required under the existing 1992 North Bethesda Master Plan; the White Flint Plan adds BLT requirements, making them one of only three mandatory exactions (in addition to workforce housing and streetscape improvements). But, instead of being a mandatory 30%, as under the old system, under the new White Flint zoning, the BLTs exaction could be as low as 5%. Developers could choose, as one of the incentives, to pay more for BLT added density, but they aren’t required to; they could choose to provide some other community amenities instead.  

What happens when you release people from a mandatory tax, even to provide something good? GASP, some developers might choose a different carrot — to pay for other amenities instead of the BLT fee. After all, density is density, whether you get it for paying farmers or for paying to provide day care.

That’s what’s got the environmental groups upset: the prospect that BLT receipts might go down in an incentive-based system. The Ag Reserve is far away and kind of abstract; day care is a crying need (sorry for the pun) right here. As their letter suggests, they would prefer a higher level for mandatory BLT exactions to start; they suggest 15% instead of 5%. Here’s a Washington Post story which covers this side of the question:

 How to resolve this clash? After all, the Ag Reserve is, in fact, one thing Montgomery does right, and it is certainly worth preserving. But how to balance that great need against all the other needs, and do so without upsetting the complicated White Flint package?

It so happens that the same person is the father of both the Ag Reserve (and BLTs to pay farmers for it) and the CR Zone. Dr. Royce Hanson is the Chair of the Planning Board, and developed the CR Zone. Decades ago, he also dreamed up and nurtured the Ag Reserve. He was brought back from retirement to reinvigorate the Planning Board after the Clarksburg scandals. He also drove the New Urbanism concept behind the White Flint Plan into Montgomery County’s planning paradigms. Call it innovation for both the 20th and 21st Centuries. Green all the way through.

Hanson told the Post “that he thought that increasing the payments on developers in White Flint could backfire. He said the Planning Board and County Council had struggled to find the right balance to encourage developers to build where ‘development is desirable,’ such as in areas served by public transit, and discourage it where more development could lead to more sprawl.”

So, the Planning Board already considered this question, with a clear mindset toward protecting the Ag Reserve. And came down in favor of incentives, not mandates, as the best compromise to achieve two County objectives which seem to clash.

This should all play out again on Tuesday morning.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


One comment


Barnaby, great piece. The key to remember in the case of White Flint is that today there is NO REQUIREMENT to purchase BLT’s under the 1992 sector plan. The new White Flint will result in more than $500 million in mostly private investment in infrastructure, a library, parks, a recreation center, environmentally sustainable buildings, excellent storm water management, a civic green, improved streetscape and pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets, and of course more than 1200 new affordable housing units.

The property owners have agreed to a goal of 50% modal split meaning that 50% of people arriving to work in White Flint won’t arrive by car. This will require costly investments in transportation demand management, a bus circulator and will likely require a new Rockville Pike with a Bus Rapid Transit system.

On top of all of this the new zone has a lengthy list of community benefits which local residents will be able to negotiate with property owners to provide. It is here that recent debate has flared over BLT’s. The new CR zone will increase BLT requirements from 0 to 5% for all new development. This places BLT’s as 1 of only 3 required improvements for all new developments along with affordable housing and streetscape improvements. The zone also provides an incentive for property owners to purchase additional units up to 20% for large properties and 30% for smaller ones. For the local community what is important is that at 5% there is still room financially for local property owners to provide the community benefits which are described in the Sector Plan. Without that flexibility, the majority of the community benefits expected will be unrealized.

The BLT supporters are asking for $40 to $50 million from White Flint to purchase development rights in the agricultural reserve. That is the cost of 2 new elementary schools, 2 new community/recreation centers, 4 civic greens, or 8 libraries. Yes, there is a reasonable responsibility to purchase BLT’s. The Council followed the recommendation of Royce Hanson the Chairman of the Planning Board and mastermind behind the BLT. He has set a reasonable requirement to fund BLT’s at 5% and created an incentive to fund more. By doing this he has also allowed the flexibility in the zone for property owners to provide the many community benefits that the residents of White Flint are expecting. That balance is important and must be a major part of the discussion on Tuesday prior to the Council vote or the vision for a new White Flint will stumble.

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