The Montgomery County Planning Board has approved—and will now send to the County Council for review—the Bethesda Downtown Plan, a potentially groundbreaking master plan that integrates the zoning and financing of public amenities in a way that has never been done before.

There are shades of the 2010 White Flint Master Plan (which was groundbreaking in its own right) that make fleeting appearances in the plan in the nature of an overall cap on the amount of development allowed. However, the Bethesda Plan creates a funding source for parks and encourages affordable housing by increasing the 12.5% Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) mandate to 15% through an incentivized density program that is part of an optional method of zoning.

This new concept is embedded in the proposed Bethesda Overlay Zone, to be known as the “BOZ.” Unlike other master plans, the Bethesda Plan does not recommend rezoning any properties to higher densities (except for some limited exceptions – Priority Sending Sites and those currently in residential zones). Instead, the plan only recommends increasing the height of properties throughout Bethesda and leaving it up to the owners and the market to determine how much density they want or need, and to locate a source for such density. Available sources include:

  • CR zoned properties within ¼ mile with existing density to transfer;

  • Priority Sending Sites willing to transfer/sell density; or

  • Payment of a Parks Impact Payment (PIP) at a cost of $10 per square foot, plus some additional requirements (provide 15% MPDUS, undergo additional design review by a newly created Design Review Advisory Panel, and obtain building permits within specified number of years or lose them).

The proposed zoning for properties in the planning area can be seen on the zoning map at the link provided here.

The plan also creates a new High Performance Area with increased environmental and sustainability goals and incentives. The overall cap on development throughout Bethesda will be 32.4 million square feet, which is approximately eight million more square feet than currently exists. Although this may be sufficient to satisfy the projected demand for the 20-year life of the plan, the mechanics of obtaining approvals and navigating the new and more discretionary process remain to be seen.

There is still work to be done by the Planning Board and the County Council. The draft Bethesda Plan must be reviewed and approved by the County Council, a process likely to begin in September 2016. After the plan is approved and adopted, there remains the creation and adoption of the BOZ, establishing the authority for collection of the PIP, rezoning some of the properties through a Sectional Map Amendment and imposing the BOZ, and completion of design guidelines to illustrate the form of building construction desired. If the Council agrees with the new concepts and the plan does not need substantial revisions, it may be mid-to-late 2017 before all of the elements for implementation of the plan are adopted.

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