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Rezoning Montgomery County

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"Rezoning Montgomery County"

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The low-density spot between the Friendship Heights and Bethesda density-pockets would probably get denser if it were legal. (Google Maps)

The low-density spot between the Friendship Heights and Bethesda density-pockets would probably get denser if it were legal. (Google Maps)

Montgomery County is a suburban country adjacent to Washington DC. It’s a nice place with good schools and as lots of anti-urbanist pundits are always assuring us lots of people enjoy living there. They’re also planning to update their zoning code but they’re making sure not to change very much:

At a Planning Department information session for the media today, planners were quick to make clear that only 2.6% of the County would actually see substantive zoning change; the majority of changes will take place in current commercial, mixed use or industrial zones (i.e. don’t worry your single-family residential heads). As one planner said, only 4% of the County is really left to develop, so changing zoning will help contain and sustain growth. Another goal of the rewrite is to consolidate and simplify land use. At present, the code still has designations for foundries and abattoirs (slaughterhouses) and has two separate codes for mini golf (“Golf Courses, Miniature” and “Miniature Golf”). The plan is to reduce the number of allowed uses from 433 specific uses to 120 broad categories.

These do sound like changes for the better, but it also highlights what I’m talking about when I talk about suburban sprawl as a policy-driven phenomenon rather than a market-driven one. If Montgomery County didn’t have so much space that’s given-over exclusively to single-family residential uses, then more people would live in Montgomery County which would mean fewer people in the farther-flung suburbs. They might still drive everywhere, but they’d be driving shorter-distances. What’s more, if it were legal to intersperse some stores with those residences, they actually might not drive everywhere. And if residential dwelling patterns were denser, it would make less sense to locate office buildings on the fringe which would further reduce the incentive for sprawl.

This would be more ecological sustainable, it would probably be healthier, and it would be more economically efficient. Win-win, in other words. What’s more, if changes were made broadly the volume of changes in most places would actually be pretty small. If you pick up one random slice of inner suburbs and say “build as dense as you want” people would find that very disruptive, but if changes were made on a broad scale you’d see a big-but-diffuse aggregate impact.

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