Thursday, January 15, 2009

Legislating Conversation?

Letting the Neighbors Know About Construction Plans
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009; GZ03

In the wake of legislation approved last month to combat "mansionization" of communities, Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) is pressing ahead with a companion initiative meant to give neighbors a heads-up about major renovations or tear-downs of older homes.

Berliner calls the bill a "conversation starter" among neighbors. But builders and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) say they see something more troublesome.

Under current practice, neighbors and neighborhood associations learn of construction projects after building permits have been issued and displayed on properties. Berliner's measure would require builders in some cases to notify certain neighbors and civic associations before a permit is approved.

Opponents of that approach are concerned that the measure would set up the false expectation that notice to neighbors would allow them to block or influence approval of construction.

Berliner seemed surprised by the level of discomfort with the bill. On Tuesday, he offered to significantly narrow the legislation to apply only to construction that replaces homes that are torn down or additions that are greater than 50 percent of an existing structure. It would not affect small-scale renovations or additions.

"This is notice only -- without any legal rights attached to it," Berliner said, "to encourage early conversation with your neighbors."

Berliner has the backing of council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who called the bill an "innocuous" requirement.

But the proposed changes did little to convince the building community, whose concerns Leggett shares. Raquel Montenegro, an associate director for government affairs at the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, said the concern is "not what the bill says" but that residents "will believe they are entitled to stop construction on the property next door." She said it would be difficult for the county government to educate residents and to lower expectations.

. . .

Staff writer Miranda S. Spivack contributed to this report.

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