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Plan To Loosen Single-Family Zoning Advances In Montgomery County

Montgomery County, a wealthy suburban jurisdiction outside of D.C. with more than 1 million residents, has advanced a plan that would allow new housing units to be added across many of its residential neighborhoods. 

An aerial view of Bethesda, Maryland, one of the highest-density parts of Montgomery County.

The Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday unanimously passed its Attainable Housing Strategies plan, which would allow duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings to be constructed within a wide swath of single-family-zoned areas across the county. 

The plan applies to four residential zoning types that cover much of the southern and central part of the county that planners envision as growth areas. Some residential zones in more rural, northern parts of the county would remain single-family-only. 

A similar policy passed last year in the nearby suburb of Arlington, Virginia, which was one of the first jurisdictions on the East Coast to end single-family-only zoning across the county. 

Montgomery County's plan still needs to pass the county council before becoming law, and it plans to hold a series of public forums before voting. 

“The time has come for Montgomery County to break free from outdated zoning that has constrained the housing supply, led to skyrocketing real estate prices, and has forced more of the county’s middle-income population to search elsewhere for housing,” Planning Board Chair Artie Harris said in a statement. 

The Attainable Housing Strategies plan recommends a series of zoning changes that would allow for “missing middle housing” across much of the county.

A map of Montgomery County, with the shading showing the areas where single-family zoning would be changed under the new plan.

The plan breaks down its vision into three categories. Small Scale Attainable Housing would be two-to-four-unit structures in single-family neighborhoods that still maintain the size of surrounding homes. Medium Scale Attainable Housing would be focused along main corridors and would include four-story stacked flats, townhouses and small apartment buildings. And Large Scale Attainable Housing would be mixed-use apartment buildings of at least four stories along “growth corridors.”

To ease concerns about the changes to single-family neighborhoods, the plan would require projects in the Small Scale Attainable Housing areas to conform with design guidelines to ensure they have the same setbacks, lot coverage and height as surrounding homes. 

The effort has been underway since 2021, and it builds on the Thrive 2050 land use plan that passed in 2022 and emphasized the need to expand and diversify the county's housing stock.

The county has seen worsening income inequality over the last two decades. From 2005 to 2022, Montgomery County lost 26,000 middle-income residents while gaining 88,000 low-income residents and 67,000 high-income residents, MoCo360 reported

Local leaders said they see this effort as critical to enabling middle-income people like public school teachers to afford to live in the county.  

“The need to relax single-family zoning is an equity issue,” Montgomery Planning Director Jason Sartori said in a statement. “Montgomery County supports strong, inclusive communities and its zoning laws need to align with its commitment to fostering the creation of communities where not just the most fortunate can own a home and build wealth.”