Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Some Montgomery County developers have built houses too high by piling up mounds of dirt, building on top of the mounds, and then subtracting the height of the mounds from that of the houses.

A Montgomery County Council committee yesterday approved a bill that would end that practice, but community activists said the legislation would increase building heights and create a larger loophole for developers to build too high.

“This is really a change in methodology without dealing with the problem of excessively high buildings,” said Carol Green, a Bethesda homeowner who has spent two years working to limit the height of redevelopment in neighborhoods.

The home next to Mrs. Green’s was rebuilt on top of dirt piled up in the back and on both sides, creating serious runoff problems for Mrs. Green’s property.

The full council will vote on the measure Tuesday.

Developers who attended the committee hearing in Rockville said yesterday that the measure would hurt homeowners who want to rebuild their houses and make them taller.

“A few developers artificially pushed up the grade, and they were wrong,” said Mark Scott, owner of Mark IV Builders Inc. in Bethesda.

Mr. Scott said the problem has been fixed because the Department of Permitting Services (DPS) began in April to require measurements of existing grades before issuing building permits.

But DPS Director Robert Hubbard said Mr. Scott’s explanation was “not anywhere close to reality.”

DPS began in April to require builders to measure the height of “terraces,” or the distance between the street and the first floor of a home, when they apply for a “terrace credit.” DPS previously would take a builder’s word on the terrace height, Mr. Hubbard said.

Terraces are not defined in zoning code as the natural landscape features, so builders could create artificial terraces and apply for a credit, which subtracted the terrace height from that of the building.

“We eliminated this terrace loophole,” said council member Steven Silverman, at-large Democrat who plans to run for county executive next year.

Mrs. Green and other activists said the council bill won’t restrict building heights at all.

The bill seeks to eliminate “terrace” exemptions by changing the building height measurement.

Build height has been measured from the street to the midpoint of the roof, but the bill would change that to measure from the front of the house to the midpoint of the roof.

Jim Humphrey of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a consortium of homeowners associations, said a new drainage exception will create an even larger loophole.

Mr. Humphrey said the drainage exception allows a builder to do as much grading as is necessary to take care of drainage problems, with no specific limitations.

Community activists said they want the county to measure height to the top of the roof, not to the midpoint of the roof, and reduce building height limits from 35 feet to 30 feet.

The committee yesterday approved height reduction to 32 feet.

Mr. Humphrey said activists want an amendment that would require grading to be measured on redevelopment projects before demolition, so dirt cannot be pushed on top of what has been torn down.

The bill would apply only to 6,000- and 9,000-square-foot lots that are adjacent to other structures.

Mr. Scott said the council is moving ahead with its bill because of widespread building violations uncovered by a residents group in Clarksburg.

“They’re running scared,” Mr. Scott said of six council members who receive substantial campaign contributions from the development industry.

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