A plan to build as many as 31 townhouses on a 5.3 acre site directly across from the Heights School on Seven Locks Road inched forward with a Montgomery County Planning Board recommendation March 31 to approve of a zoning change for the site.
But the proposed development is still several stages away from implementation and plans will likely be revised before reaching development review in the summer or fall.
The land at 10401 and 10525 Seven Locks Road, on the east side of the street about one quarter mile north of Democracy Boulevard was zoned R-90 — allowing single-family homes at a minimum lot area of 9000 square feet each. The change, approved by a 4-0 vote with Planning Board vice-chair Wendy Perdue absent, zones the property RT-8, for residential townhouses with eight dwellings per acre.
The change must still go to a Montgomery County Hearing Examiner and be approved by the Montgomery County Council.
The property is abutted by the Inverness North community to the north and the Turning Creek community to the south, both townhouse developments with RT zonings.
Neighbors from both communities objected to the zoning change, citing environmental concerns surrounding stormwater management, cutting of specimen trees, traffic problems on Seven Locks, and the effects of blasting that may be necessary during construction.
“It’s a tough one. It was a close call,” said Callum Murray, Potomac team leader in Park and Planning’s Community-Based Planning division of the staff recommendation to approve the change.
In 1992, during a draft revision of the Potomac Subregion Master Plan, Murray called on the Planning Board to recommend acquisition of the site as an addition to Cabin John Regional Park, which abuts it to the east. The planning board approved the recommendation, but the owner objected and the County Council denied the request.
The site, known as the Burley property, is still owned by the Burley family, but is under contract to Centex Homes, a Texas development company. Centex is also the contract-purchaser of the former American Speech and Hearing Association site next to Strathmore Hall. County councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) proposed a successful council measure to protect some of that land, which is used for community purposes. Denis criticized the company’s lack of consultation with the community in moving in on the property.
THE PROPOSAL is a considered a map amendment rather than a zoning change, though it is functionally the same. The RT-8 zone will be a “floating zone” which covers the site but does not have well-defined boundaries. Although less restrictive in that sense, the application for a floating zone is in some ways more rigorous, requiring the applicant to provide a schematic development plan.
The planning board recommendation to approve the zoning change also carried with it several “biding elements”—requirements of the development plan that are more restrictive than the standard requirements of the zone. The development will be limited to 31 townhouses covering at most 20 percent of the site and must keep 65 percent of the site as green space. The zone requirements would limit the development to 41 townhouses with 35 percent building coverage and 50 percent green space.
THE DETAILS REVEALED in the schematic development plan partly fueled neighbors’ concerns.
In testimony to the board, Frances Cameron, a Turning Creek resident pointed to traffic snarls on Seven Locks road, especially at the beginning and end of the school day;. a development plan that does not meet the forest conservation threshold; and “the lack of an effective stormwater management plan” for the steeply-sloped site, which Cameron said creates significant runoff into his area already.
“I think under these circumstances it’s appropriate to require the applicant to develop more information before rezoning. Once you re-zone, it’s going to be difficult to go back even if later significant problems are indicated at the site,” Cameron said.
Lynn Mayo, an Inverness North resident and engineer, also criticized the stormwater management plan in testimony to the board and correspondence with the board and the county’s Department of Permitting Services, which approved the stormwater plans.
Murray said that it is unusual to even send a developer’s plans to DPS for review so early in the development process. “However, if I look at a site and I think, ‘stormwater’s going to be a real problem here,’ I make them go up there. They could come around and say, ‘We don’t have to do that,’ but they do it. And all I need from DPS is to say, ‘Yeah, we think it’s feasible but we’re going to need a lot more information,’” Murray said.
Land use attorney Jody Kline of the firm Miller, Miller and Canby responded to some of the community concerns on behalf of the applicant. The proposed development is consistent with the surroundings, he said, and would mitigate stormwater and sloping concerns with a system of terraces.
“If we were sitting here with a single-family plan, I disagree with those who said that’s the preferred form of development for that property. I’ve seen it occur elsewhere on Seven Locks Road on properties that are less steep than this and it rips the hell out of the property. Townhouses, developed on the plateaus, as we put them, can be done in a way that’s sensitive and compatible,” Kline said.
Murray, in an interview, said he understood the neighbors’ concerns but that Kline’s point was legitimate. “They’re forgetting that their sites, they weren’t as bad as Burley, but they were pretty bad. And now they look fine,” he said.
A FURTHER COMPLICATION to Centex’s plans is the County Council’s approval in November of a major revision of the county’s affordable housing laws, including a reduction in the threshold number of housing units above which a
developer must provide moderately priced dwelling units barring a special waiver. Affordable units were formerly required of all developments of 35 or more units. The number is now 20.
Centex signed a contract on the site before the new legislation was passed.
“They never dreamed that they would get caught by this. Providing four townhouses on a site like that, that’s an expensive proposition,” Murray said.
Kline said before the board that the development would include new affordable housing units, but said in an interview that that statement may have been premature. The applicants are investigating whether the new laws apply to development plans that were already underway when the law was passed.
No change to the existing zoning of the site is recommended in the Potomac Master Plan, placing an added burden on the developer to prove the efficacy of the plan.
“The burden is squarely on you that you establish this zoning,” Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage said to the applicants following community testimony. “We’re really stretching. I want to hear why is it in the public interest to grant this rezoning? What are the reasons why we should do it? All I can hear is reasons why we shouldn’t.”
“I find this case difficult” commissioner Meredith Wellington said, addressing the motion to approve the change recommendation. “I’m going to support the motion but I’m going to do so on the basis that I will remember this case and be following it very closely. … I expect staff just to stick to your guns and remember that this is a very challenged site.”