2020 | Development

County might eliminate automatic residential building moratoriums

Pace of development would not be tied to school crowding

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The Montgomery County Planning Board last week reviewed potential revisions to the countywide growth policy, including possibly eliminating most automatic residential building moratoriums.

Over the past year, planning department staff members have reviewed the county’s subdivision staging policy (SSP), which aims to ensure infrastructure keeps pace with new development. The largest and most debated part of the policy currently mandates that areas of the county be placed in an automatic residential building freeze if there is not enough capacity in the local schools to accommodate more children from new building projects.

Under the current SSP, schools with enrollments exceeding 120% of their capacity are automatically placed in a moratorium. The moratorium means no residential development projects can be approved in the school’s service area for at least one year, or until a solution is determined to alleviate the school’s crowding issues.

Construction on projects that were approved before the implementation of the moratorium can proceed.

In a new draft, county planners propose eliminating automatic moratoriums outside specific areas of the county, called “greenfield impact areas.” The areas are characterized as having increased student enrollment “due largely to increased growth in predominantly new single-family housing.”

The Planning Board would not be able to approve new building projects in any areas under moratorium unless the project is projected to “generate less than one student at a school in moratorium,” or consists entirely of age-restricted units for people 55 and older, according to the policy.

Greenfield impact areas are concentrated in the Clarksburg area.
The rest of the county would be split into two other zones:

  • Infill Impact Areas, where student enrollment growth is low, largely due to turnover of existing single-family housing.
  • Turnover Impact Areas, with increased growth of predominantly multi-family units, which generate few students.

While automatic moratoriums would be scrapped for infill and turnover areas, the Planning Board would have discretion to determine whether “the conditions are sufficient for supporting a proposed development,” according to Jason Sartori, chief of the Planning Department’s Division of Functional Planning and Policy.

“In other words, the Planning Board would have to affirmatively decide that the schools are adequate to approve the application,” Sartori wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat. “Alternatively, they could deny an application if they find the circumstances to be inadequate.”

The changes, according to the new draft policy, would remove a “one size fits all” approach to county development.

Different areas of the county have different “growth contexts and desired growth patterns,” according to the draft. For example, development in Bethesda — a more urban, densely populated area — is different than in Poolesville, a more rural area.

Additionally, school crowding is mostly attributed to changing demographics and “turnover of existing single family neighborhoods (that is, families with children buying homes from households without children),” the document says.

So, in most cases, stopping new development, which generally produces fewer new students, doesn’t make sense, according to the document.

“For this update, Montgomery Planning recommends an approach that groups neighborhoods based on the character of their growth and that growth’s impact on schools,” the draft policy says. “This is in contrast to the current countywide approach as well as the regional approach that groups neighborhoods based on their assignment to a school cluster and then their proximity to each other.”

During a Planning Board meeting on Thursday, county planners said the current moratorium policy slows the county’s ability to fill its housing supply gap, impacts housing affordability, hinders economic development and does not solve school crowding problems.

The county Planning Board reviews the SSP every four years.

Other proposed updates to the schools section of the SSP include:

  • Updating student enrollment estimates used to calculate school impact taxes, which developers pay to support MCPS construction projects
  • Updating the calculation of a recordation tax on home sales “to make it more progressive and to generate more funding for school construction and affordable housing initiatives”
  • Requiring developers to pay a premium for residential projects served by crowded schools in areas without an automatic moratorium
  • Testing school capacity only at the school level, eliminating cluster-level moratoriums.

Thirteen schools and four school clusters are in moratorium across Montgomery County.

Another major component of the SSP is ensuring the area of a potential building project has adequate roads and other transportation methods to support any increase in traffic.

The new draft policy recommends requiring a “Vision Zero impact statement” for new residential development projects.

In 2017, the county implemented an initiative known as Vision Zero, aiming to eliminate pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.

County leaders set an ambitious agenda by developing a 41-point Vision Zero plan two years ago.

In a town hall meeting in December, officials said progress has been made on some aspects, but many had yet to be addressed.

The Vision Zero impact statement would examine a potential project’s safety considerations for pedestrians and motorists.

Montgomery County residents can send their feedback about proposed changes to the SSP to the Planning Board prior to a public hearing, scheduled for June 11.

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