Thursday, February 25, 2016

Should Rockville's single-family neighborhoods be rezoned for multi-family housing?

Historic map of Rockville
town center
A well-written land use briefing presented to the Rockville Planning Commission last night contained a high level of detail, and fascinating data and graphics related to the City past and present. It is a must-read for any citizen or official engaged in the current update of the citywide master plan. The presentation also brought up a highly-controversial idea that I cannot find in the text of the report, however.

Referring to the large lot sizes in Rockville's older residential neighborhoods, and the rising cost of housing, planner Barry Gore suggested one change the Planning Commission might consider is to allow multi-family zoning (i.e. duplexes) in existing single-family home communities. Importantly, he was not formally recommending such a change, but only floating it as one of many ideas the commission might want to consider in their discussion of the new master plan.

Such a concept caused a meltdown in Seattle last summer, when a Seattle Times columnist brought backroom zoning negotiations to public attention. There, a "citizen" committee was about to recommend doing away entirely with single-family zoning.

“We can still be a city for everyone, but only if we give up our outdated ideal of every family living in their own home on a 5,000 square foot lot,” the Seattle committee's co-chairs wrote. The Seattle committee also detoured into the decidedly-out-of-left-field talking points we're hearing now from the Montgomery County Planning Board under its current membership and leadership - namely, blaming the concept of single-family housing for "racial and class exclusion." Okay. They might want to tour the diverse neighborhoods of Rockville sometime.

The Seattle committee also endorsed the idea that existing residential neighborhoods should be transformed into multi-family zones "that would allow duplexes, triplexes, rooming houses and more backyard cottages and mother-in-law units in areas now dominated by single houses on lots with yards."

Of course, such concepts were not coming from "citizens," but rather, developers and the politicians they fund behind the scenes. In fact, a former staff member of Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal advocated the radical idea of turning large homes in the County into group homes and boarding houses. Since such an outcome would likely require a Mao-like relocation of elites in Potomac and Burning Tree, one wonders how this would be possible. I'm assuming this wasn't an April Fool's post. But it gives you a sense of what these type of politicians have in mind for the quality of life and preservation of existing neighborhoods. Remember, in July 2013, Leventhal declared suburbs were "a mistake."

I bring this idea of re-subdividing and re-zoning single-family home neighborhoods to your attention because not only is difficult for people to attend or watch every meeting, but also this idea is not prominent in the report. Residents should be aware that this is something being put on the table with many other ideas.

It should be noted that only 34% of land in Rockville is occupied by single-family homes, compared to Seattle's 65%. So Rockville is hardly in need of a suburban diet.

One factor cited by both the Rockville report and Seattle's effort is the false argument that massive numbers of new residents are on their way to town, and we are obligated to house them. And citizens must be willing to "change" or "modify" their behavior for this greater human good, such as "getting out of their cars."

The "they're coming" argument, advanced by people like infamous former County Planning Director Rollin Stanley, just isn't true. People can come all they want, but they'll only stay if you provide housing for them. Don't build the new housing, and your population and cost of government services the new housing generates won't increase.

Unfortunately, the report also cites Maryland documents that were essentially authored by developers who made big campaign contributions during the O'Malley administration (in fact, Martin O'Malley appointed an executive from a developer moving into Rockville in a big way - EYA - to his "Smart Growth" commission). Whether on enviromental concerns, or land use, these reports mysteriously all find a single solution to all of our problems - urban-style development. I am shocked. Shocked.
Dubious Maryland scientific statement
cited in Rockville land use report
Put aside your knowledge of advances society either currently enjoys or is on the verge of - autonomous and zero-emission vehicles, Uber, alternative fuels, smart highways, active traffic management, high-mileage vehicles, etc. - and now prepare for a science lecture from politicians in Annapolis.

"The only method to ensure a reduction in overall transportation emissions over time is to sharply reduce the rate of growth in [vehicle miles traveled], which will require a significant adjustment of land use patterns away from automobile-oriented development," one Maryland report states with authority. The problem is, that's simply not true. Reducing VMT is not the only way to reduce emissions, as any Tesla or Prius driver can tell you. The high-density housing they recommend actually will increase emissions, as they bring large numbers of additional vehicles with them.

In order to make solid land use decisions, the data and information cited should be accurate; this environmental statement is not.

Another questionable citation in the report, is that of the highly-biased office space assessment that Montgomery County politicians hired a consultant team to generate. Much like those state reports, the office report starts with a conclusion that we need to turn office space into housing, and builds an analysis backwards around it. Some of the data was just plain wrong, and it completely left out the fact that Montgomery County's current policies are so anti-business that we haven't attracted a single major corporate headquarters in over a decade. So how do you decide the fate of your job centers without studying the policy side of the equation? Guess what: ceding more jobs to Virginia and D.C. increases auto emissions.
Is your property green, yellow or
 red on this map? (click to enlarge)
On the positive side, among the many interesting graphics in the Rockville land use report is one showing the relation of land value to the value of the structure(s) it is currently improved with. There's a lot of yellow and red on this map, indicating quite a bit of land that's either just slightly less valuable than the home on it, or far more valuable than the house on it.

That fact underlines the importance of any transformational zoning discussions to be held during this process, and all the more reason for residents to get involved in the process either at the Planning Commission hearings, or through the ongoing Rockville 2040 events being sponsored by the City planning department.

Images courtesy City of Rockvile

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