Montgomery County residents turned out in force at two public meetings on Monday to express concerns about a proposed rule change that would eliminate the special exception process for some accessory apartments, also known as “mother-in-law” apartments.
The zoning text amendment proposed by Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission staff would allow by right “attached” accessory apartments of up to 1,200 square feet that are located in certain residential and agricultural zones, and “detached” accessory apartments in specific residential zones. (See the zoning text amendment draft online for more details.)
Many residents objected, arguing that the special exception proceedings keep them informed and involved in the process.
“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.”
An estimated 275 to 300 accessory apartments exist in Montgomery County today, Pamela Dunn told the crowded auditorium at Park and Planning headquarters in downtown Silver Spring. Dunn is the project manager for the comprehensive zoning code rewrite underway at M-NCPPC.
The motivation behind the rule change is to streamline the process for accessory apartments, while still protecting neighborhood character, said planner Gregory Russ, the coordinator for the proposed zoning text amendment.
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 appeals board 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.
“It doesn’t mean no oversight; it just means no public hearing,” Dunn said.
Russ repeatedly said that streamlining the approval process for accessory apartments would result in more affordable housing throughout Montgomery County and more opportunities for elderly homeowners on a fixed income to remain in their homes.
Barbara Sanders, a Silver Spring resident, said her son Greg returned to the area after earning a graduate degree and getting a job in D.C. but was unable to afford anything more than a studio apartment. He found a family with a basement apartment in their 1930s-era colonial home, looking for a renter. The arrangement suited both sides perfectly, as the family used the extra income to send one of their children to college. But Sanders was one of only a few people in the audience with something positive to say about streamlining the accessory apartment process.
Many questions from the audience revealed a deep mistrust about the ability of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs to enforce accessory apartment codes.
"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."
Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park attended the afternoon public meeting and shared how he had recently accompanied some county housing inspectors on their rounds in Wheaton.
“They don’t even have the manpower to do what they do today in a reasonable amount of time,” Elrich said afterward. “How are they going to be able to go out and monitor everything else?" There is no extra budget money to support them, he added.
Homeowners can exercise their constitutional rights and refuse these inspections unless the inspectors have a search warrant, making enforcement for accessory apartment rules very difficult, he said.
Elrich added that if county planners see affordable housing as a critical priority, more attention should be paid instead to transit-oriented development areas.
“This is about taking other single-family neighborhoods and radically altering them,” he said after the meeting.
Elrich asked planners whether they 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 later.
Monday’s public meetings marked the beginning of a lengthy public process.
The next step is for the county Planning Board to make a recommendation to transmit the zoning text amendment to the County Council. Then, if a councilmember choses to formally introduce the change, 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 amendment would come before the full council for a vote.
The Planning Board is scheduled to take up the amendment in June.
Should certain accessory apartments be allowed by right? Or should all accessory apartments continue to go through a special exception process? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.