- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Montgomery County Council yesterday overwhelmingly approved a zoning law amendment to eliminate a building-height exemption after a contentious debate over how to measure a building’s height.

County activists and several council members have said the “terrace height exemption” has allowed builders to construct houses that are too high by allowing developers to pile up dirt, build on top of it, then subtract the height of the dirt from that of the building.

“This has been a festering problem for 10 to 15 years,” said council member Howard Denis, Bethesda Republican, who first proposed the amendment two years ago.

“It is confusing, but a lot of the confusion has been a smoke screen to mask the fact that some individuals don’t want this to pass,” said council member George Leventhal, at-large Democrat. “This is not that complicated.”

Mr. Leventhal said the amendment simply would limit the height of all homes on lots of between 5,000 square feet and 18,000 square feet to “2 stories, 35 feet, no games.”

Mr. Denis yesterday altered his amendment to remove changes by the housing committee, which is headed by council member Steven Silverman, at-large Democrat.

Council President Thomas Perez, Takoma Park Democrat, said the amendment was “trying to get back to Mr. Denis’ original intent, which was to eliminate terrace height exemptions and measure to the top of a building. And I think 35 feet would mean 35 feet.”

Mr. Perez said the terrace exemption had provided “perverse incentives” for those who wanted to take advantage of a loophole and build their homes higher than the law allows.

“Everyone thinks this should be really simple, and I agree, but it isn’t because the county isn’t flat,” said council member Nancy Floreen, at-large Democrat.

Forty minutes into the debate, Mrs. Floreen read a children’s book titled “The Great Orange Splot,” about a Mr. Plumbean who paints his house differently from his neighbors’ homes.

“The neighbors couldn’t believe their eyes,” Mrs. Floreen read. “‘Plumbean has gone too far,’ they said. ‘He’s popped his cork, flipped his lid.’”

Mrs. Floreen later finished, saying, “To me, at least, that summarizes the debate. How can we accommodate these changes while respecting the concerns of neighbors?”

Mr. Leventhal laughed.

The council passed Mr. Denis’ amendment by a vote of 8-1. Mr. Silverman voted against it.

“Unbelievable,” said Carol Green, a Bethesda homeowner who has spent two years working to limit the height of redevelopment in neighborhoods.

Mrs. Green’s next-door neighbors rebuilt their home on top of a mound of dirt and were given a terrace exemption, creating runoff problems on her property.

“I’m very happy. It was quite a struggle,” she said.

In addition to eliminating the terrace amendment, Mr. Denis’ amendment to the zoning code changes how height is measured.

Houses had been measured from the street to the midpoint of the roof, and the height limit was 35 feet.

Now the height limit is 35 feet if measured to the top of a building, and 30 feet if measured to the midpoint of the roof.

In addition, height will be measured from the average midpoint of the front of a home, instead of the street.

“This is a tremendous victory, especially in light of Clarksburg,” Mr. Denis said, referring to the town where widespread building violations were uncovered this year.

Several developers and builders attended the meeting and were upset with the council’s action.

“What’s so scary is that none of them know what they’re talking about,” said Andy Rosenthal, owner of Rosenthal Homes, which specializes in custom luxury homes.

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