A rendering of the Solaire Ripley II project Credit: VIA WASHINGTON PROPERTY CO. WEBSITE

Members of a civic group are taking issue with a proposed downtown Silver Spring zoning change that they argue caters to one developer.

A Montgomery County Council committee on Monday discussed the measure, which would increase building height limits to 270 feet inside the Ripley District and south Silver Spring for projects that include a grocery store. Existing zoning for the Ripley District and south Silver Spring region limits heights to 145 feet in general, although developers can get approval for a 200-foot building if it provides ground-floor retail.

Council member Tom Hucker of Silver Spring sponsored the legislation as a strategy for bringing a new grocery store to the area west of Georgia Avenue and south of Bonifant Street.

“It would seem like there are a number of grocery stores in downtown Silver Spring, but there are residents who are unhappy with our grocery options,” he said to fellow council members.

Hucker’s proposal would let property owners add another 70 feet of height to their projects if they build a grocery store of at least 10,000 square feet and an onsite or offsite “major public facility.” A major public facility could include a school, library, recreation center, park, county service center or bike-sharing station, according to zoning law.

But the Montgomery County Civic Federation has protested, arguing that the change benefits an apartment project at the former Progress Place shelter site at 8120 Colonial Lane. Members of the advocacy group argue that a 270-foot building would well exceed the height limits envisioned by the Silver Spring sector plan.

“Does the Council amend Master Plans for a particular merchant? How do we know the grocery will materialize and if it does, it could be here one year and gone the next, but the height change would be permanent,” Harriett Quinn, chair of the federation’s planning and land use committee, wrote in testimony.

Washington Property Co. President Charles Nulsen has said his company asked for zoning legislation to bring a “niche grocer” to the 440-unit apartment building, called Solaire Ripley II.

Janel Crist Kausner, associate vice president for Washington Property Co., said Hucker’s proposal has been well-received in all the community meetings she’s attended and noted it has been supported by the Montgomery County Planning Board and the Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Committee.

“People are overwhelmingly supporting the ZTA (zoning text amendment) because it will facilitate bringing much needed new businesses that offer basic community services, helping not only the Ripley District but Downtown Silver Spring thrive,” she wrote in an email.

She said Washington Property Co. is in talks with potential tenants for the retail space, but it’s too early to reveal what businesses might open below the apartments.

The Silver Spring master plan recommends that buildings be less than 90 feet when they are next to Georgia Avenue and stand no taller than 143 feet farther from the roadway.

Jeff Zyontz, a senior legislative analyst for the council, pointed out that zoning code trumps the master plan, and the two do not have to match each other exactly. He concluded that Hucker’s proposal provides development flexibility, allows for new building uses and encourages organized and cohesive development, in accordance with the zoning for the downtown Silver Spring area.

Zyontz said the proposal doesn’t increase the potential building density, but only offers additional height for more above-grade parking facilities. He noted that Hucker’s bill would apply to all properties within the district, not just the Progress Place redevelopment.

Kausner said opening a grocery store increases the need for parking, but it’s difficult and costly to build a below-grade garage at Solaire Ripley II because it sits on rocky ground. The additional height flexibility will allow the developer to avoid the expense by putting the parking spaces above the ground, she said.

Casey Anderson, the planning board chairman, told the council that the area in question is not near single-family homes, so the proposal for additional height did not raise major compatibility concerns with board members.

Zyontz said the proposal will come back to the full council in the coming weeks for further discussion and a vote.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.