An initiative aimed in part at expediting the development of affordable housing has had a strong start in its first year, Montgomery County leaders say.

The “speed to market” initiative was approved by the county Planning Board in March 2021 and began to be implemented around the same time. The initiative allows developers to seek expedited approval for some projects, particularly those that are for biotech space or provide large amounts of affordable housing.

Usually, projects go through a multi-phase approval process, involving multiple appearances before the Planning Board. The expedited process allows all three levels of approval — sketch, preliminary and site plans — to happen at once, which can cut the time it takes for final approval from roughly 300 days to around 100, according to Robert Kronenberg, deputy planning director for the county Planning Department.

Since the initiative began, about a dozen projects have used the “speed to market” process, yielding approval for more than 100 affordable housing units, Kronenberg said.

“I think the question is, ‘Why don’t we do this for all of them?,’ ” Kronenberg said. “But I think when we hone in on the uses that become major policy initiatives in the county like expanding biotech and affordable housing, we want to give them a lot of credit, and give them a lot of our time to make the projects move ahead.”

Two projects have been approved under the expedited process in the past three weeks, both with a focus on affordable housing.

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In early July, the Planning Board approved plans for a five-story, 359-unit apartment complex in the White Oak area. The project also includes 28 “two-over-two” units, which are similar to townhouses. About 58 of the units (15%) are expected to be designated as affordable housing.

Last week, the Planning Board also gave its approval to another apartment project, this time in the Silver Spring area, which includes 98 units, of which about 24 (24.5%) would be designated as affordable housing.

A county law, established in the 1970s, requires that all new multifamily housing developments with at least 20 units designate at least 12.5% of units as affordable housing, meaning they’re rented at rates lower than others to accommodate people who cannot afford market-rate housing.

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County leaders’ focus on affordable housing issues has sharpened in recent months as County Executive Marc Elrich campaigned for re-election against challengers David Blair, a Potomac businessman, and County Council Member Hans Riemer in the Democratic primary. Blair currently holds a slim lead over Elrich as the tally of mail-in and provisional ballots continues.

Riemer and Elrich, especially, sparred on affordable housing issues. During the campaign, Elrich said the county’s past investments and zoning practices haven’t led to the results that the council had envisioned. Riemer and others disagreed with this characterization. Riemer said that Elrich has not invested enough or implemented strong policies to encourage more affordable housing throughout the county.

In an interview last week, Elrich said the idea for the initiative came from a “listening tour” he and County Council Member Sidney Katz did in 2018. During those meetings, business leaders and developers repeatedly said the process to get projects approved was too laborious and time consuming.

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“It’s frustrating for everyone involved and the length of time that it takes doesn’t add any value to the process — it’s not like we’re spending all this time because we’re doing critical work,” Elrich said of the development approval process. “We’ve just made it unnecessarily complicated.”

Elrich said if he’s re-elected, “there are some other things we’re going to look to change in the process that would trim more time off.” He declined to elaborate, aside from saying none of the processes, including the current “speed to market initiative,” circumvent public input.

Kronenberg said one concern people have had with the condensed approval timeline is that they worry they won’t have as many opportunities to provide feedback about project plans.

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He noted, though, that developers are still required to provide advance notice of a proposed project, conduct community meetings and notify neighbors when an application will be reviewed by the Planning Board.

“I don’t really think it has an impact too much on the public in terms of their input, but it does shorten up the time frame,” Kronenberg said. “So I think people have to kind of navigate the timelines, not only just (planning) staff, but both the applicant and community as well.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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