What is Zoning?



Zoning tells you what you can build on your land & how you can use it

The term "zoning" is derived from drawing zones on a map that define where different land uses are allowed, or not allowed.

Some land is zoned for heavy industry, which you usually don't want next to residences.

A lot of land is zoned exclusively for single family-detached housing.

Some zones are created primarily for Commercial buildings, while other zones encourage a mix of uses that add to the vitality to Town Centers, or that encourage the right kind of development around transit stations.  And some zones are created to preserve valuable natural resources like Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve.

Woman One: "Zoning determines what I can build on my property."

Woman Two: "Hey Lady, I think you're building that way too close to the property line."... "Zoning determines also what your neighbors can build on their property."

  • Zoning determines how tall buildings can be.
  • Zoning determines the parking requirements.
  • Zoning determines the types of businesses you can have in your neighborhood, like this book store.
  • Zoning regulates the size of your lot.
  • Zoning sets the density for all development.
  • Zoning establishes which uses require a public hearing and determines how much public review is required for something to be approved.

Zoning has an enormous impact the way places look and feel the right zone can protect, or improve a neighborhood; revitalize a business district, or create useable and attract development space, but zones can't guarantee those things landowners and developers are still free to build in any density and height they choose as long as it's within the limits set by the local zoning code.

"Here's a good example": (man standing in front of a low-rise Rite Aid in front of 20 story office building)

"This place is right next to a Metro stop, and it's zoned for buildings as tall as the one behind it, but this developer decided to build smaller and lower, and the zoning code allows that by right; so, what's here is this single story Rite Aid."

This is the old Safeway in Wheaton in the CVD Zone 3 Zone (pictured single Safeway building one-story-low-rise-stand-alone).  It was built in 1968 according to the market conditions of the time.  It reflects current market conditions; and this is a rendering of the proposed new Safeway (pictured tall-high-rise-office-building-w/stores below); it reflects current market conditions, but the zoning is the same for both buildings.

Now that we've gone over the basics of zoning, let's look @ a common zone to illustrate how zoning works: [The explanation gets technical here]

R-90 is a common single-family detached residential zone in Montgomery County.  In the R90 zone there is a required minimum lot size of 9000sq.ft. w/a minimum lot width of 75'; so, your lot could be 75' x 120'; a 95' square, or, anything larger than that.  

For Flag lots @ the existing, or proposed street line:

  • the min. width is 25'; generally building lines have to be parallel to lot lines; 
  • so, you can't get too artsy, and there are "set-backs"; 
  • so, you have to build @ least 30' back from the street w/a min. of 8' on either side of your house, 
  • although the total of the side set-backs has to add to 25, 
  • and you can't be any closer than 25' to the rear of the lot.  
  • The R-90 zone also states that no more than 30% of the lot may be covered by buildings.

Josh Sloane (?) speaking:

The current code is not always that clear though. Which is one of the reasons for the Re-write Project.  This is how "Height" is defined in the R-90 zone: [and video moves into real fast beat, and throws a lot of explanation @ you; 4.56 to 5.29]

  • The ___ 35' measured to the highest point of the roof surface, regardless of roof type, or 30' to the mean height level between the eaves and ridge of the gable pit, mansourd or gambrill roof specific to the following:
  • The height must not exceed 2-1/2 stories, or 30 or 35'; depending on method of measurement, if other lots on the same side of the street, and the same block, are occupied by buildings w/a height the same, or less than, this requirement.  
  • The height may be increased to 3 stories, or 40'; if approved by the Planning Board, through a site plan or procedures; so, that's how a zone works.

Valerie Burton speaking:

So, why is Montgomery County revising it's zoning code?  Well, for one thing the code hasn't been comprehensively re-written since 1977, and a lot has changed in the county since then.  Also, the current zoning code is 1152 pages long.  You'd need a team of lawyers to figure out what you can and cannot do w/your property. Since 1977 the number of zones has tripled from 41, to over 120 today, with over 400 land uses specified.  There are currently 12 types of office uses listed; and we probably don't need that many distinctions since office impacts are generally pretty similar.

Rollin Stanley speaking:

In this discussion about zoning, it's important to remember that the zoning flows from a broader vision, in this case; the broad vision for Montgomery County involves, since the 1960s, is the wedges & corridors plan which then manifests itself in more specific neighborhood-based planning studies, such as the one that Council recently passed for this are called White Flint.  Those local visions are translated on the ground, by what the local zoning then does, and how building permits are issued, in conformance with those local zoning rules.  

We only have about 4% of the land area in Montgomery County left that can be built on for the kind of development we've seen in the past which is tract housing going in clear fields.  But we do have about 7400 acres of surfaced parking lots, or commercial areas on very busy streets with strip malls, and when we start to think about where the Zoning rewrite can help us develop in the future, it really is surface parking and strip development.

And to have these discussions, the planning department has had about 70 meetings in the public; so far in the Zoning Re-write, and lots more are coming to gage what MC residents are thinking about what they'd like to see in areas like this; and, it's an opportunity for the Zoning Code to take a look at sustainable development in the future about taking hard asphalt surfaces and turning it into something better.

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