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Votes

Surplus School Sites Targeted for Affordable Housing

County Council tried to play catch-up with affordable housing.

The County's Housing Policy, which encourages a mix of all housing options in each planning area, was adopted by the Council in July.

"From this point forward, affordable housing has to be in the front and center of all Master Plans. In the past, it's been a footnote in Plans, much like the environment has been a footnote in plans," said Derick Berlage (D-At large), during the full County Council's worksession devoted to voting on all issues pertaining to the Potomac Master Plan, the 20-year blueprint for landuse in Potomac.

Council identified three unused school sites, Brickyard Junior High, Kendall Elementary and Churchill Elementary, for consideration for affordable housing in the future.

The Potomac Master Plan was the first Plan to come before the Council since the Council adopted the Housing Policy.

"The [Potomac] Master Plan did relatively little for affordable housing. Planning was done before the established housing policy and constraints in Potomac are difficult. Not withstanding that, we felt it was important to make the strongest possible recommendation regarding affordable housing," said Berlage.

As of January 2000, the Potomac subregion contains approximately 800 of the county's 15,600 subsidized or mandated affordable housing units. In the Potomac and Travilah Planning areas, 3.4 percent and 3.1 percent of all housing units are affordable. These percentages place these planning areas toward the bottom of the middle third of all County planning areas outside the rural area.

The Potomac subregion has 1,288 of the county's 10,600 affordable housing units under the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program, which requires some affordable housing be included in any new development of more than 49 homes.

"I think we need to do something more aggressive, this is dreadfully inadequate," said Isiah "Ike" Leggett.

So much so, that council staff suggested that one option would be to ship the Master Plan, which was voted on by the full council Tuesday, Feb. 5, back to the Planning Board.

"If the Council believes that implementing the Housing Policy is a higher priority than other policies given priority in the Potomac Master Plan, the Council may want to consider remanding the Plan and asking the Planning Board to give greater attention to this issue," wrote Marlene Michaelson, senior legislative analyst with council staff.

Although Council elected not to do so — the Master Plan cleared the full Council on Tuesday — it did address sites that should be considered for affordable housing, including the Brickyard Road Junior High, Kendall Elementary School and Churchill Elementary School surplus sites. Should these sites every be declared unneeded by the school system, the county will consider them for all options, including parkland, affordable and elderly housing, or ballfields.

The Plan also mentions Cabin John Shopping Center, Stoneyhurst Quarry, Fortune Parc, Rock Run Advanced Waste Treatment Site at Avenel, and a site adjacent to Potomac Village, including the Habibi and Srour Properties west of Falls Road and north of River road as potential sites for elderly housing should they be developed in the future.

The Council voted to allow for 135 units of housing at any future redevelopment of the Cabin John Center, as long as 75 of the units are designated for elderly housing.

"I think this is an important issue in Potomac and has been so over the years," said Nancy Dacek (R-2). "One of the big issues has been because of the nature of zoning. You don't have [public] transportation and you don't have as many areas that those in affordable housing can get to shop."

Obstacles to building affordable and elderly housing in Potomac include high land prices, demand for expensive housing, low-density zoning, absence of sewer and transit, and environmental constraints.

The Council elected to take out language originally included in the Plan, stating that preferred and ideal locations for elderly or affordable housing are locations that are close to activity centers, planned as mixed-use centers, well served by public transportation, convenient to shopping, medical offices and other service amenities, and located in areas served by public water and sewer, because that language might limit possible sites for affordable housing.

"We were not trying to make that restrictive, we said not every site will meet all these issues," said Art Holmes.

Dacek questioned how the exclusion of those criteria could impact on special exceptions applied for by future developers.

"Those five items are indeed true, whether you state them or not," said Dacek.

"The reason we struck them had nothing to do with special exceptions but the fact that no other Master Plan in this county has this language," said Steve Silverman, council president and a member of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee.

Dacek said providing for affordable senior housing is even more critical.

"The issue of affordable senior housing is at a crisis point and as we encourage senior housing in Potomac it is going to be difficult to get anything other than the market rate. There are going to have to be a lot of subsidies," said Dacek.