Friday, September 28, 2007

Legislative Update: Zoning and More Zoning

Two zoning bills are scheduled for a public hearing and vote this coming Monday, October 1st. These bills affect a variety of zoning and development issues such as traffic, road capacity, and infill development of small lots.

  • The "Peninsula Roads Bill" (Bill No. 61-07), introduced by County Executive John Leopold, will apply tougher development standards to smaller subdivisions on peninsulas. Currently, county code applies Adequate Public Facilities (APF) traffic standards to subdivisions of five or more lots. Smaller subdivisions are not addressed. [APF standards help ensure that before new development goes forward, the roads, water and sewer, and other facilities are in place to handle it].

    Individually, a major subdivision has a greater traffic impact than a small subdivision. But collectively, several small subdivisions can also have a major impact. Bill 61-07 will allow the Planning Officer to impose APF requirements on smaller subdivisions when these smaller subdivisions will have a combined, measurable impact.

    This bill applies to five designated peninsulas in the County with only one way in and one way out. The Annapolis Neck Peninsula east of Bay Ridge Road is one such peninsula. I view this bill as an appropriate tool to address traffic problems on peninsulas and plan to support it.

  • Bill 69-07, also introduced by the County Executive, is billed as a "housekeeping" bill to clean up several technical parts of the zoning code. While some of the changes are minor, others are more substantive. I plan to introduce amendments to strike some of the following changes.

    • Assisted Living Facilities: Assisted living facilities are currently allowed as a Special Exception use in R-1 and R-2 zones if built on a minimum of 10 acres. Bill 69-07 proposes to reduce the minimum to five acres. In a strictly academic sense the proposed change is reasonable; the code already allows nursing homes on five acres in R1 and R2, so why not assisted living facilities too?

      The reason I oppose this change is timing. Practically speaking, it would affect only one project currently in the pipeline. The Shelter Development Group, a reputable company out of Baltimore, is proposing a 160-unit Brightview Assisted Living Facility on seven acres on Generals Highway just north of the Annapolis Mall.

      Under the current zoning the project would require a variance hearing. The variance hearing would provide the community with an important safeguard to protect that site from overdevelopment. However, if the zoning change goes through, no variance would be needed.

      Shelter Development is engaged in ongoing discussions with the community but there is no consensus to support the project at this time. It would be premature for me to support this zoning change so I am offering an amendment to strike it from the bill.

    • Infill Development: Another provision in the bill would open the door to more infill development of small, substandard lots.

      Many older communities such as Herald Harbor were subdivided before the county adopted our modern zoning code. The lots in these communities are often small, narrow and irregular. Currently the zoning code requires a variance to build a new house on one of these substandard lots. Bill 69-07 would eliminate the variance requirement for substandard lots that met certain criteria.

      In my view, as with the assisted living provision discussed above, the variance hearing serves as a safeguard to prevent overbuilding on these smaller lots. I am introducing an amendment to strike this provision and leave the code unchanged.

    • Waterfront lots: Another seemingly minor provision in this bill would change the definition of a waterfront lot in certain communities. The reason this is important is because stricter development standards apply to waterfront lots than to other lots. For example, a builder of a home on a waterfront lot must take extra steps to avoid blocking the neighbors' light, air and view. A waterfront lot also requires a fence permit for any sized fence, whereas most regular lots only require permits for fences six feet or higher.

      There is a good reason why stronger development standards apply to waterfront lots. Even though the lot itself is private property, the water view is a public benefit for the whole neighborhood. That's why the zoning code is set up to prevent a walling-off of the waterfront.

      What does this have to do with the bill? Currently, the zoning code's definition of a waterfront lot includes a lot that does not directly abut the water but is on a community-owned road that runs along community-owned waterfront. This definition is appropriate because construction on these lots impacts the neighbors' view just as much as construction on lots that abut the water. Annapolis Roads, Herald Harbor and Oyster Harbor are three examples of these communities with community-owned roads that run along community-owned waterfront property.

      The bill proposes to change the definition of waterfront lot to exclude these lots. Changing the definition in this way, although seemingly minor, would enable more walling-off of the waterfront by allowing more intensive development of these lots along the water. I am sponsoring an amendment to keep the definition of a waterfront lot unchanged.
The County Council hearing starts at 7 p.m. Citizens can sign-in at 6:30 to testify. It looks like it will be a lengthy meeting because the agenda includes not only these bills but the bill to ban fly-ash dumping, discussion of the school board budget and other items.