2016 | Real Estate

Proposal to Reduce Residential Home Setbacks Draws Backlash from Bethesda Residents

Measure would allow developers to request approval to build homes 10 feet from public roads instead of 25 feet

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Homes in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg (pictured) here were mentioned as an example of what shorter setbacks would look like

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Multiple Bethesda residents told Montgomery County Council members Tuesday that a proposal to reduce home setbacks from public roads in the county’s residential areas has the potential to negatively impact the character of local neighborhoods.

The backlash came during a public hearing in Rockville about a proposed Zoning Text Amendment that, if approved, would reduce the setback from public roads from 25 feet to 10 feet in certain residential and rural zones. A developer would still need to attain site plan approval from the county’s Planning Board before being able to construct homes with the reduced public road setback and county officials said Tuesday that step would provide another layer of oversight.

Greg Russ, a functional planner in the county’s planning department, said the impetus for the change is to discourage developers from building private roads in new neighborhoods. A developer is allowed to seek Planning Board approval to construct 10-foot setbacks in residential areas, but if approved, the developer must build and maintain a private road. County officials said Tuesday that requirement is leading more developers to build private roads, which have been associated with poor maintenance and connectivity issues with other roads that leads to the county coming in and later taking them over.

Gail Bancroft, president of the Bradley Boulevard Citizens Association, said Tuesday the change could lead to more urban-looking residential developments in historically suburban communities.

“These are suburban residential areas where constituents built or bought homes with a reasonable expectation of a safe, quiet, suburban life,” Bancroft said.

Previously, the Bradley citizens group has aired concerns about a Toll Brothers proposal to build 330 homes on the 75-acre WMAL radio tower site near the I-270 spur.

Jeff Zyontz, who handles zoning issues for the council, said the setback change would not enable developers to build more homes on a property due to limits on lot coverage in residential zones, but could enable them to create a “more urban look and feel.” He agreed with council member George Leventhal’s suggestion that the Kentlands in Gaithersburg is a good example of a type of neighborhood that could be constructed with 10-foot setbacks.

Doug Bonner, who was representing the Bradley citizens group at the meeting, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat after the discussion that the zoning change could benefit Toll Brothers and enable the developer to build a neighborhood that looks different from the surrounding communities.

“This expedited bill is a way for Toll Brothers to get the best of both worlds—road maintenance by the county and the lower setback it’s proposing for the WMAL development,” Bonner said.

Pat Harris, a land use attorney for Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, testified in support of the proposal, saying a developer could only move forward with the reduced public road setback after a comprehensive review by the Planning Board.

“Adoption of the [zoning amendment] provides one less reason for private developers to seek private roads,” Harris said Tuesday.

Bethesda resident Sean Lydon testified that the amendment could “create a path to change aesthetics of every community.”

Residents instead urged the council to shift the private road setback requirement to 25 feet in residential areas or simply eliminate developers’ ability to construct private roads.

Council member Marc Elrich said he would be in favor of requiring homes built on private roads in the county to have 25-foot setbacks and received a round of applause from the audience.

Elrich was joined by council members Roger Berliner and Sidney Katz in expressing concern about the proposal to reduce the public road setbacks. Council president Nancy Floreen said the proposal would be further discussed by the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee before being put forth for a vote.