County Council Members Split Over Affordable Housing, Height Caps in Bethesda

Approved map will limit height bonuses around edges of downtown


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After some wrangling over building height bonuses, the County Council on Tuesday approved legislation aimed at executing a broad vision for Bethesda’s future.

Vigorous discussion surrounded the issue of building heights allowed by the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, which passed in May. In recent weeks, the debate resurfaced as council members considered the zoning text amendment written to accompany the long-range growth plan by establishing Bethesda-specific development rules and guidelines.

The argument over height centered on the availability of affordable housing and predictability for existing residents concerned about high-rises near their homes.

After extensive debate, a council majority sided with council President Roger Berliner in his push to prohibit height bonuses for developers in certain parts of Bethesda. 

“Let’s honor what I believe is a fundamental obligation when we do the kind of transformative work that we are doing in Bethesda,” he said. “The fundamental commitment then and now should be to hold the community together.”

Generally, developers can gain additional building height as a reward for building more affordable housing than is required by the county’s moderately priced dwelling unit program. However, some Bethesda residents pushed for an exception applying to properties near their communities, saying developers at those sites shouldn’t be able to exceed height caps established by the sector plan.

Others fought against restricting an incentive that they argue could help address the affordable housing crunch in Bethesda.

Council member George Leventhal said he understands the concerns residents have about building height. But he had no interest in limiting the incentives for constructing new affordable housing.

“Will we or will we not restrict the possibility of affordable housing in a few key sites steps from Metro? That is the decision before council members,” Leventhal said.

One proposed map for restricting height bonuses failed in a deadlocked vote after council member Craig Rice declined to participate; Rice explained that his wife owns a salon in downtown Bethesda, and he’d decided to sit out the vote after seeking legal advice about the potential conflict.

The panel then voted 5-3 in favor of a different map that would allow the height bonuses in the downtown core, along Battery Lane and on the Sport and Health site at 4400 Montgomery Ave.

Leventhal and council members Nancy Floreen and Nancy Navarro opposed the measure.

The approved map also allows the incentives on the property for the Barclay Apartments owned by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. The site sits just south of Bradley Boulevard near the intersection with Wisconsin Avenue.

Drafted map for height incentive areas in downtown Bethesda. The height bonuses would be allowed in the region shaded orange and barred in the white areas. The final version of the map also permits the incentives at the Barclay Apartments just south of Bradley Boulevard. Credit: Montgomery County Government

While the issue of heights dominated discussion about the zoning text amendment, the legislation covers a wide range of issues. For example, it created a pool of available building density, which property owners can tap into if they pay a fee for park development.

The proposal approved Tuesday sets this park impact payment at $10 per square foot of density. The rate will be adjusted yearly to follow changes in construction costs.

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