Examiner Local Editorial: 'Accessory apartment' proposal is ultimately unfair

Opinion,Local Editorial

Hemmed in by its own conflicting policies and facing a growing affordable-housing crisis of its own making, the Montgomery County Council is now seriously considering a proposal to require single-family homeowners seeking permission to rent out "granny flats" in their basements to erect a sign in the front yard warning the neighbors. One can hardly imagine a better way to scare prospective buyers off the block.

Three decades ago, county planners established a 90,000-acre agricultural reserve -- about a quarter of Montgomery's total land area -- to preserve hobby farms and combat urban sprawl. But by limiting the supply of houses in the reserve to one per 25 acres, they eliminated a logical escape valve for Montgomery's growing population while the council's sanctuary policies toward illegal immigrants increased the demand for affordable housing.

The end result -- decreased supply and increased demand -- sent rents and prices of existing single-family homes through the roof. Now, even well-heeled professionals can't afford a house in Montgomery County. Hence the proposal to allow single-family homeowners to rent out part of their spacious suburban homes without the need for a special zoning exception.

Because relatives and household employees who live in the home rent-free are already covered under Registered Living Unit rules, the current proposal only refers to rent-paying tenants. Would-be landlords must currently go through a public hearing process that allows affected neighbors to voice their opposition. The zoning amendment, which is scheduled to go before the full council next week, would replace that process with a front yard sign.

Montgomery residents and homeowners associations have raised key objections to the proposed changes in the "accessory apartment" licensing process. They correctly point out that the new standards governing size and other specifications would likely not be enforced, because the county has already proved itself unable or unwilling to prevent homes in areas zoned for single families from being converted into de facto boarding houses. They also note that the county's public schools are already overcrowded and there's not enough parking for existing residents, let alone newcomers, on the county's narrow residential streets.

But the main problem with the accessory apartment proposal is that it unfairly allows a piecemeal dismantling in residential areas of the same zoning code that the county so scrupulously enforces in the agricultural reserve. County government created this mess with its not-so-smart growth policy.

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