The Gaithersburg City Council on Monday night passed a change to the city code to clarify where public housing may be built.
Opponents worry the change could limit affordable housing and impede a proposed redevelopment of a hotel into a senior center.
The council introduced the amendment in November. It states that properties zoned for commercial, employment and industrial uses could not have residential uses in those zones.
Previously, it was possible to build public housing by right in areas of the city other than those zoned for residential development.
The amendment, which passed 4-1 on Monday, is meant to clarify the definition of a public use in the nonresidential zones, city officials have said, and is not meant to curtail the city’s commitment to affordable housing.
Mayor Jud Ashman reiterated that position on Monday.
“This is a housekeeping endeavor here. … We’re clarifying that when we have a commercial zone, we mean commercial and not residential. And when we have a residential zone, we mean residential and not commercial. It really is not commercial,” he said.
For almost two years, B.F. Saul Company has been working with Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) to reconvert the former Holiday Inn at Md. 355 and Montgomery Village Avenue into affordable housing for older people.
The plan is to convert 300 rooms into 160 apartments for a mixed-income community.
Ashman said the city is not necessarily opposed to the Holiday Inn plan, and supports the zoning change to avoid a “shortcut” to the normal rezoning process that all other applicants must undergo.
“You need to go through rezoning and we will consider your project just the same as we would consider any residential project in a commercial zone. You have to rezone first,” he said.
Bob Dalrymple, an attorney who represents the HOC and B.F. Saul, said during the meeting that they looked into rezoning the Holiday Inn property, but there are “master plan issues that would make that highly doubtful.”
Dalrymple said his parties’ opposition to the zoning text amendment isn’t meant to question the city’s commitment to affordable housing.
“But it is a referendum on whether the city thinks that the conversion of this building to affordable senior housing is desirable and is in the public interest,” he said.
Jean Dinwiddie, a resident of Tulip Drive who is on Gaithersburg’s Senior Advisory Committee, said she worries the zoning text amendment is “outside the scope of our mission.”
“If you all decide that you want to be consistent and pass that ZTA, we’d like to know if you are still in favor of putting some affordable senior housing at that site,” she said.
Council Members Ryan Spiegel, Neil Harris, Laurie-Anne Sayles and Mike Sesma voted in favor of the amendment, agreeing that the amendment is meant to clarify the zoning law more than change it.
Spiegel said it’s “a bit backwards” to suggest that it undercuts the goal of expanding affordable housing in the city.
“If this ZTA passes, I concede that we should work hard to make sure we provide as much clarity and certainty as we can, as to whatever other paths forward might exist for reuse of any particular process, recognizing that there’s never 100% guaranteed outcome in the planning and zoning process,” he said.
Council Member Robert Wu, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he worries that there are a “panoply of public uses that could be build by right.”
A better approach, he said, would be to use the conditional-use process to determine whether a “public use is harmonious with the area.” This process, he said, would give the city more review authority.
“There’s been this discussion recently about innovative schools,” he said. “And so if an applicant wanted to come in and turn that into a school with horrible access to it, with no place to walk, they could do that by right under our current code. If they wanted to install an incinerator there … they could build an incinerator there and we could have no say in that at all.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org