The Planning Process: Who does what and when?
Every community in Montgomery County has a land-use plan and depending upon the size of the area being addressed it is either called a sector plan (smaller) or master plan (larger). We in Chevy Chase Lake are undergoing review and modification of our sector plan.
The sector planning process can be viewed as cumbersome, lengthy and complex. At the same time it allows ample opportunity for residents to provide input and help shape the plans for their community. However, the process can be just as confusing for residents as it is some property owners. A lack of communication and misunderstanding can lead to needless conflict and, as a result, a plan that doesn’t really work for anyone. This can often be avoided by starting an effective dialogue between property owners and the community early.
The Planning Board
The Montgomery County Planning Board is an independent regulatory body, appointed by the County Council. They work within the structure of the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (MNCPPC). At MNCPPC there is a planning board for Montgomery and Prince Georges County. Each County has its own planning staff and planning director but they share some administrative services. The Planning Director for Montgomery County is a staff member named Rollin Stanley and the current appointed members of the Planning Board are: Francoise Carrier (Chair), Casey Anderson, Amy Presley, Marye Wells Harley, and Norman Dreyfuss. In the case of Chevy Chase Lake, we are currently in the midst of sector planning and this is a function of the planning department. The County Council determines the order in which sector plans are updated and written, but typically each community’s plan is reviewed every 20 – 25 years.
Depending on the situation and size of the sector, the planning department can approach community engagement in different ways. It can form advisory committees consisting of property owners and residents. It could also hold charettes, and in the case of Chevy Chase Lake they held a meeting at MNCPPC headquarters and held a workshop at the Chevy Chase Library. Planning staff also discuss and hear proposals from the property owners in the sector. Once all these activities are complete, they release a staff draft.
In the case of Chevy Chase Lake, after considering proposals from developers and planning staff, the community and property owners felt that more time was needed to develop a plan that had more consensus. So late last year the County Council approved a delay, meaning the plan will be delivered to the Planning Board and hearings will be held late spring/early summer. The staff draft, which serves as the starting point for the planning board discussion, has not yet been released. In considering the staff draft, the planning board will hold open meetings, accept public testimony, and have worksessions. They will question the planning staff and property owners and assess this plan in the context of local land use and countywide land use objectives, and will ultimately make some revisions to the existing plan. Once the plan is approved by the planning board, it is transmitted to the County Executive who has an opportunity to provide comments before the County Council begins its review.
The full body of the County Council, acting in its capacity as the District Council, is responsible for all land use policy in Montgomery County. It is initially presented the planning board approved sector plan in a public meeting and public hearings are held to solicit stakeholder input, after which it is referred to the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) committee (currently consisting of the chair Councilmember Nancy Floreen, and Councilmembers George Leventhal and Marc Elrich). The PHED committee will then have their own worksessions (open to the public) and may further refinements to various elements of the proposed plan. As the committee reviews the plan they may request to hear from the planning staff, community members, property owners and other stakeholders on various issues and properties. The members of the PHED committee may make changes to the plan based on this feedback or they have the prerogative to send the plan back to the planning board for additional work.
After the PHED committee has completed its work they will vote to move the plan to the full Council. The full council will then conduct a series of worksessions to review the committee’s recommendations. Some changes may be made at this stage as well. If the full Council approves the plan, it then moves into implementation where the real detailed work occurs. Up until this point don’t expect too much detail in the plan. A sector plan won’t show you what properties will look like, the types of retail they’ll have, or the number of residential units. This is really left for the property owners to propose on individual parcels as they move forward through the details of the sketch and site plan processes that are part of implementation. At this stage what you will know are the types of amenities being provided, the allowances for density and height, infrastructure needed and some other zoning details.
After the Council has approved the plan, government implementation rests in the hands of the Executive Branch (i.e. construction of new roads, community centers, etc.). Individual properties are addressed by the property owners and real estate developers but the role of the planning department is not done yet. Sector plans have a 20-30 year shelf life, and are rarely ever built out to the maximum amount allowed by the zoning within that timeframe. For every new development project in the sector, the property owner must submit first a sketch plan and then a site plan to the planning department at the Planning Board. A sketch plan gives a slightly greater degree of detail, shows the massing of the buildings, their height, some of the types of uses and the overall density planned for the property. With a sketch plan a public meeting is required and the Planning Board will have another public hearing that includes testimony from residents and other stakeholders. If a sketch plan is approved the next step for the developer is creating a site plan. The site plan is where all the detail exists. Trees, benches, exact number of housing units, garages entrances, all of it is in the site plan. You’ll even see some architectural renderings so you know what the buildings will look like. The site plan goes through a similar process as the sketch plan. Public meetings and hearing and an opportunity to testify give you another chance to shape the development effort. Once a site plan is approved by the Planning Board a developer must get the proper permits from the County. While the entire sketch and site plan processes have been going on, the County Executive and his agencies have been working on the infrastructure, traffic monitoring, and planning the amenities. For example, a developer my provide park space, but the County has to budget for its maintenance and program it.
All these things take time, and lots of it. Once a sector plan is approved there is no schedule for submission of sketch or site plans. For the most part, the market drives when it becomes financially feasible to develop. So it may take many years for the first sketch plan to be submitted and even longer for a property owner to break ground, or these things could happen relatively quickly. Just remember that creating a sense of place and managing the evolution of a community can take decades. We hope this post gives you a better idea of how you can contribute towards shaping it.
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