The schedule for the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council is ever-changing. The PHED Committee is considering the White Flint Sector Plan, with a schedule which envisions a report back to the full Council on the Plan by mid-December. That schedule may have slipped just a little.
The PHED Committee will be holding a hearing on Monday, November 23, on the new “Commercial-Residential Zoning” or CR Zone). The CR Zone is the Planning Board’s proposal to encourage more residential construction in areas now dominated by commercial buildings (or in White Flint’s case, by parking lots). The County hopes for a nearly equal ratio of jobs to housing in an area, which is consistent with New Urbanism thinking, since people who live close to their jobs tend not to drive as much. The current ratio in White Flint is about 9 jobs to 1 housing unit.
The CR Zone has run into unexpected turbulence from an unlikely source. The CR Zone is a new type of zoning pattern for Montgomery County. Instead of simply requiring certain “amenities” in exchange for a building permit, the CR Zone adds incentives for providing those amenities. For example, a development which includes a day care center will be allowed slightly greater density to make up for the added cost.
One complaint, however, is that developers will have a choice between the new CR Zone and older, non-incentive-based zoning, and a choice between whether providing the new amenities or not (choice is, after all, the difference between a mandate and an incentive). So projects in areas where projects are likely to be successful will use the incentives to provide many amenities, while those in marginal areas, where success is not assured, will not. So, the theory goes, projects in wealthy, desireable areas will be amenity-rich, while those in less-attractive areas will be amenity-poor. Some County officials don’t want to be seen as encouraging any disparity between different parts of the County.
Of course, the problem with that complaint is that the CR Zone is designed to encourage amenities which otherwise wouldn’t be provided in either wealthy or less-well-off areas. Incentives to provide those amenities won’t be effective if the market won’t support them; projects simply won’t be built. So to avoid having more amenities in wealthy areas, the critics would prevent amenities from being provided anywhere.
Plus, it is the amenities in successful areas which drive the added revenues which allow the County to provide additional services to improve less-attractive areas. For example, in Arlington County, which has provided incentives for its very successful “smart growth” redevelopments near transit opportunities, the redeveloped areas provide half the County’s tax revenues from about one-tenth of the County’s land. That’s why Arlington County has one of the lowest tax rates in the Washington Metropolitan area.
The controversy over the CR Zone, however, has pushed back the ambitious schedule for the White Flint Sector Plan. The Plan depends on the CR Zone, which was developed specifically for White Flint, but is now being contemplated for other areas of the County. One possible resolution is for the CR Zone, as envisioned, to be used in White Flint, but not in other parts of the County where government mandates might be imposed for fairness reasons.
The PHED Committee now plans to look at the White Flint Plan’s transportation elements on Monday, November 30, with follow-up hearings on land use on December 7 and 10. The land use hearings will review specific projects proposed for White Flint, just as the Planning Board did. Friends of White Flint has examples of the project proposals on its web site, www.whiteflint.org, on the White Flint Sector Plan – Specific Projects page.