During a series of public meetings Monday, several residents objected to a proposal that would elminate the special exception process for certain accessory apartments, also known as "mother-in-law" apartments.
“If they take away our voice by allowing accessory apartments by right, we don’t have a say,” said Kim Persaud, president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association. “These laws are going to change the way single-family homes look today.”
Montgomery County residents turned out in force at two public meetings Monday. They expressed concerns over an amendment proposed by Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission staff that would permit by right “attached” accessory apartments of up to 1,200 square feet in certain residential and agricultural areas, and “detached” accessory apartments in specific residential zones. (See the zoning text amendment draft online for more details.)
Opponents argued that the special exception proceedings kept them informed and involved in the process.
"I'm really kind of cynical that you're going to be out there regulating this,” said Howard Nussbaum, president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association. “With the special exception, I know what's going on next door and I can put my two cents in."
Planner Gregory Russ, the coordinator for the proposed amendment, said the rule change was intended to streamline the process for accessory apartments, while still protecting neighborhood character. Current regulations require a special exception for every accessory apartment in Montgomery County, a process that usually takes nine to 13 months. The county's board of appeals approves special exceptions for an average of 10 apartments each year.
“It’s rare that we get one that’s denied,” Russ said.
Instead of the board of appeals subjectively deciding which special exception applications to approve, a by-right process would establish objective criteria, Russ said. Apartments that do not meet those parameters can still seek approval through the special exception process, while apartments that meet by-right standards would still go through a registration and inspection process prior to being inhabited. Homeowners would also still need a rental license from the Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
Russ said that streamlining accessory apartments process would result in more affordable housing throughout Montgomery County and would lead to more opportunities for elderly homeowners to age in place on a fixed income.
There are between 275 to 300 accessory apartments in Montgomery County, according to Pamela Dunn, the project manager for the comprehensive zoning code rewrite underway at M-NCPPC.
“It doesn’t mean no oversight; it just means no public hearing,” said Dunn, who also addressed the crowded auditorium at the Park and Planning headquarters in downtown Silver Spring.
During the afternoon meeting Monday, Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich asked whether the planning department had considered revising the special exception process to shorten the time period rather than eliminating it altogether.
“It’s certainly on the table,” Russ said in response.
Monday’s public meetings marked the beginning of a lengthy public process.
The next step is for the Planning Board to make a recommendation to transmit the zoning text amendment to the county council. Then, if a councilmember chose to formally introduce the ZTA, it would be sent back to the planning board, which would hold another public hearing before sending back comments to the council. Next, the council would hold its own public hearing, and the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee would hold worksessions. Finally, the ZTA would come before the full council for a vote.
The Planning Board is scheduled to take up the ZTA in June.