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Ready, Set, Go: Montgomery County Council Takes Final Steps to Implement the New Bethesda Downtown Plan

Almost four years in the making, the Montgomery County Council on September 19, 2017 is expected to adopt the Sectional Map Amendment that will rezone downtown Bethesda in accordance with the New Downtown Bethesda Plan, which was adopted this past May.

Not surprisingly, given Bethesda's prominence in the County, the Downtown Plan as well as the associated Bethesda Overlay Zone (BOZ) and the Bethesda Downtown Plan Design Guidelines have generated a significant amount of interest among various stakeholders, including property owners, developers, investors, and residents since the process started more than three years ago.

Overall, the amount of new potential density allocated by the Downtown Plan to the CBD is fairly tepid – less than 4 million SF. To put this in perspective, this is less than the White Flint II Sector Plan allocated to a single location – the White Flint Mall site.

From the outset, the Planning Department emphasized three important objectives of the Downtown Plan – increasing the number of affordable housing units; increasing the amount of park and green space; and improving the architecture and design of new development. These three objectives are addressed in the adopted Plan.

The Downtown Plan's approach to development represents a significant deviation from the typical Montgomery County master plan amendment. Instead of allocating both new densities and heights to properties within the sector plan area, the plan for the most part only recommends new maximum height limits. The underlying zoned density on the vast majority of sites remains unchanged. In order to develop a site in excess of the density identified in the existing zoning classification and up to the new maximum zoned height (the additional density is referred to as the “BOZ density”), subject to the Design Guidelines, a developer will be subject to a Park Improvement Payment (PIP), which is currently set at $10 per square foot of BOZ density.

The Design Guidelines, which were adopted by the Planning Board in late July, are an important component of the Downtown Plan. These are much more than mere recommendations, and optional method projects are expected to substantially conform to them, although the Planning Board has the authority to approve alternative design approaches that better meet the intent of the Guidelines.

While under the current development process one could analyze the existing zoning of a property and be relatively confident of the density yield and site layout, the Downtown Plan imposes a much greater level of uncertainty until a project has worked its way through the entire review and approval process. This new approach may leave developers more than a little leery, because it removes one of the most desired components of the development process: predictability.

In late July, the Council adopted the BOZ implementing the recommendations of the Downtown Plan. Critical components of the BOZ include the following:

  • Requires 15% MPDUs for projects providing more than 20 units
  • Provides for potential increases in height within the Height Incentive Area, if a project provides greater than 17.5% MPDUs
  • Eliminates public benefit points for transit proximity
  • Requires at least 15 public benefit points from energy conservation or production category
  • Requires at least 10 public benefit points for exceptional design and limits maximum to 30 points
  • Provides additional public benefit points for every additional 1% of MPDUs in excess of 15%
  • Reduces the minimum number of required parking spaces to 80% of the minimum currently provided in the Zoning Ordinance
  • Requires projects utilizing BOZ density to file a building permit application within two years of Site Plan approval and obtain the building permit within two years of filing the application. Failure to meet these deadlines results in revocation of the Site Plan approval, with no ability to obtain an extension.

After the adoption of the BOZ in late July, the Planning Commission began to process projects filed under the new Downtown Plan. The Planning Board is expected to hear the first of these projects later this fall.

Pat Harris is a land use attorney who works with developers, property owners, and national retailers to secure zoning approvals in Montgomery County, Maryland and surrounding jurisdictions. For more information on the downtown plan, the design guidelines, or the Bethesda Overlay Zone, contact Pat at paharris@lerchearly.com or 301-841-3832.

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