Montgomery County educates community on new zoning rules designed to clean up neighborhoods
New laws go into effect April 24; residents worry about lack of enforcement
Some residents are encouraged by Montgomery County's efforts to explain new zoning laws that will go into effect this spring, hoping that will mean neater neighborhoods. But they also worry about the county's ability to enforce the new rules.
The new laws, effective April 24, restrict the encroachment and expansion of home businesses within residential neighborhoods and limit the paving of front yards and the presence of heavy commercial vehicles in residential zones.
They also prohibit excessive parking on front lawns and require home-business owners to prove they live in the residence from which their business is operated.
Property owners in violation of the code could face as much as $500 in fines per day.
The Montgomery County Council voted 6-3 in favor of the new rules in late October.
The zoning laws do not apply to paved area that was built before Oct. 26, so long as the paved area is not increased.
Kim Persaud, president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association, said she is pleased to see the county reaching out to community groups.
"It's a good thing that the county is addressing these issues that have had a negative impact on our neighborhoods," she said. "The county heard us. The county actually heard the residents say We need help.'"
Persaud is a member of the Georgia Avenue Coalition, a group formed in 2009 among neighborhood associations along Georgia Avenue that attempted to raise awareness of code violations in the county.
At the same time, Persaud said the new laws are not the end of the line.
"There's still a lot of work to do," she said. "We're holding these three agencies [codes, zoning and permitting] accountable. Having these codes and not having them enforced is not going to be good."
Sharon Dean, a board member of the Aspen Hill Civic Association, another group that supported the new zoning laws, said she is concerned about the ability for code inspectors in the Department of Permitting Services and law enforcement officials to implement the laws.
"It's important for citizens to know that codes, zoning and permitting haven't been thoroughly overhauled in decades," Dean said. "The fact that they're complaint driven is also part of that problem. We would like to see more proactivity."
Michelle Layton, co-chairwoman of the Sandy Spring Ashton Rural Preservation Consortium, said she also is concerned about the methods for enforcing the new laws.
"One of the frustrating things is the limited number of inspectors in [Department of Permitting Services] to facilitate all of these complaints," she said. "I certainly hope it will work out in the way it's supposed to work out."
The new zoning text amendment also allowed for a $25,000 public information campaign to educate county residents.
Montgomery County spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield said the community meetings are part of that campaign. Three meetings have been staged since March 2, with one more this week and another next week.
"A lot of people still don't know what the codes are and the changes to the codes," he said. "An important part of the effort is also to educate people."
He said the county is using the money for an informational website, brochures in English and Spanish, advertising posters on the sides and backs of buses and paid media programming.
Lacefield said the county also will meet with community groups and send out information to all civic associations.
The new laws were proposed by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) based on recommendations from a 2008 code enforcement work group that was formed at his request.
Layton said she appreciates the county's efforts to educate the community about the new laws.
"For us, it's good to know that they are aware of these issues and responding to neighborhoods and communities that are feeling that they are losing a sense of their communities," she said. "It's nice to see that action being taken."
Who enforces the rules?
According to Montgomery County's website, enforcement primarily is by complaint. The Department of Permitting Services is responsible for the enforcement of home occupations, paving of front yards and off-street parking issues.
Unregistered and inoperable vehicle issues are handled by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, and on-street parking complaints fall to the county's police department.
For Permitting Services and Housing & Community Affairs, an inspector investigates a complaint and issues a notice of violation if he or she finds just cause. If the violation is not corrected and/or dismissed within 30 days, a citation may be issued accompanied by a $500 fine. On-street parking violators can be ticketed by the police.