Senior Housing Opportunities Available in Montgomery County With the Right Plan

The aging trend in Montgomery County is on a dramatic trajectory – by the year 2040, one in five County residents will be 65 or older and one in three will be 55 or older. And, despite 16 senior housing projects in the development pipeline, there remains a gap between forecasted supply and demand.

The changing demographics provide an opportunity for senior housing developers, but they must navigate the entitlement process carefully.

Senior Housing Classifications

Senior housing in Montgomery County typically falls into one of two categories: “Independent Living Facilities for Seniors or Persons with Disabilities” or “Residential Care Facilities,” including nursing homes, assisted living, continuing care retirement communities, hospice, and group homes. In addition, in certain zones, a third classification, townhouses geared toward seniors that exceed certain accessibility standards, are also permitted as a conditional use.

The required entitlement process for these uses depends on a number of factors including the size of the facility, the zoning of the property, and whether certain pre-established conditions can be satisfied. 

Conditional versus Permitted or Limited Use

Senior housing is permitted in almost every zone in the County as either a permitted, limited, or conditional use, with the vast majority of zones requiring conditional use approval.

Conditional Use: In brief, conditional use approval requires filing a comprehensive application, Planning Board review and recommendation, and Zoning Hearing Examiner approval. The conditional use standards impose a number of requirements on the senior housing use, including a significant amount of open space and green area.

Notably, independent living (IL) units provided by conditional use are subject to a greater affordable housing requirement than those IL units allowed as a permitted or limited use. In addition, an important criterion of a conditional use is that the Hearing Examiner must find that the use is compatible with the surrounding area, and as provided by the Zoning Ordinance, satisfaction of all specific requirements “does not create a presumption” of compatibility.

Keep in mind there is a certain amount of subjectivity infused in the process, which can make obtaining an approval more challenging in the face of ardent neighborhood opposition.

Permitted or Limited Use: Given the potential challenges associated with the conditional use process and the greater affordable housing requirement, senior housing providers may benefit from considering those zones where senior housing is permitted without conditional use approval.

  • Residential Care Facilities are a permitted use in the CR (commercial residential) and LSC (life science center) zones and are a limited use (i.e., the use is permitted provided all of the pre-established conditions of the limited use are satisfied) in the CRT (commercial residential town), CRN (commercial residential neighborhood), and GR (general retail) zones. Notably, the only pre-established limited use condition relates to process — if the site is located next to certain specified residential or agricultural zones, site plan approval is required (it likely would be anyway).
  • Independent Living uses are a limited use in the residential multi-unit zones (R-30, R-20 and R-10), the CRT, CRN and CR zones and the GR and neighborhood retail (NR) zones. Importantly all of the pre-established limited use conditions relate to operational aspects (such as the age of the permitted occupants) and not design characteristics nor development standards.

The establishment of senior housing as a permitted or limited use in these zones is still subject to an entitlement process – typically Sketch Plan and/or Site Plan approval by the Planning Board. Nonetheless, these processes before the Planning Board offer a certain amount of predictability not always found in the conditional use process.

While this is a general overview of the senior housing landscape, every site is unique and warrants careful evaluation to determine the permissibility of the senior housing use and to identify any specific requirements applicable to the site.

Pat Harris is a land use attorney who works with developers and property owners to secure zoning approvals, including senior housing entitlements. For more information, contact her at [email protected] or 301-841-3832.