Home » Home and Garden » With New Zoning, it’s time for GHI to Step UP

With New Zoning, it’s time for GHI to Step UP

posted in: Home and Garden, Opinion
Example of brick row in original condition.

 

(Today I sent the following letter to Greenbelt Homes, Inc.‘s Buildings Committee, which will be discussing compliance the new zone and problems with our current exception system at its meeting tomorrow night.)

Bottomline: I urge the Buildings Committee to recommend the appointment of a new task force to study compliance with the new NZO zone.

It’s great news that GHI and City of Greenbelt’s campaign to be included in the county’s new Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zone (NCOZ) was granted because it was needed to protect Historic Greenbelt from unwanted development. Broadly, the purpose of the special zone is to “protect and preserve unique development features and the character of the historic New Deal community of Greenbelt.”

County-Mandated Changes
The new zone comes with almost no new county mandates – mostly just reducing the size of additions. down from the currently allowed 100% increase in gross square footage down to a 60% increase. Also, additions over a 15 percent increase will be reviewed by the Planning Department but it’s unclear yet what they’re reviewing for.

What Else in the New Zone About GHI?

The rest is left to GHI itself to implement. But there’s helpful language in the county’s study report about applying the zone to GHI – the purpose of the protective zone, and what elements (“character-defining features”) GHI might consider conserving. I’ve learned that design standards are typically done at the HOA (or coop or condo) level, so this is quite normal. (See Attachment below for extracts of language that help guide GHI’s compliance with the new zone.)

Of note, the county’s report includes this: “The intense interest of the City and community in pursuing the NCO Zone itself is drawn from the deep desire of all stakeholders to maintain the historic character and physical features of Greenbelt.”

The Need for Architectural Review

One of the “minimum standards for approval” of the zone includes the requirement that Renovations of existing structures are subject to architectural guidelines in GHI.”

But the sad reality is that GHI does not and has never performed architectural review of additions or alterations to GHI homes and yards. Only projects that need exceptions to GHI’s technical specifications come to the Architectural Review Committee for review of the exception requested, not of the project as a whole. The ARC then has no actual authority over exceptions – its vote is merely advisory. The board alone decides.

In order to do architectural review, GHI first has to agree on standards, principles or criteria to be used in the review.  In other words, it needs to decide which features need historic conservation, which addition designs are most harmonious with existing units, and so forth. Currently only the Technical Services Department reviews all additions, and its review doesn’t cover historic conservation or aesthetic considerations.

History of Failed Efforts to Create and Apply Standards

How unusual for a property of such established importance in American planning and architecture – a National Historic District – to conduct no architectural review, or even to establish standards that could be used in such review!

It turns out that from the establishment of our coop in 1952, the rules and procedures have been surprisingly oriented toward preserving individual desires to change their homes and yards however they wish, with the only constraints on additions, for example, being about size and location – none about conserving design details or using colors and materials that are harmonious with the original buildings.

The closest GHI came to installing actual review standards that would conserve important features and help keep our community attractive and well-kept was 25 years ago. Back in 1997 the city and especially the county’s Planning Department worked with GHI for several years to write a detailed, 135-page proposal for a Historic District that would include all of GHI.

Unfortunately, the federal Historic District status achieved by Greenbelt was an honorific that only affected changes made through federal funding; it didn’t confer any historic review requirements for modifications in GHI. However, the proposed county Historic District would have carried legal requirements for conservation of historic elements. The proposal would have given members flexibility in designing compatible additions and streamlined the process of process if a proposal was in keeping with the guidelines.

But what happened to the proposal is pretty shocking.

There was a large GHI member meeting at the American Legion to decide whether to accept the Historic District proposal and a vote of the membership in attendance was strongly in favor of it (one source told me it was “nearly unanimous.”) Yet the board declined to put it on the agenda for action, and the effort failed. The result: The GHI membership’s decision was not honored.

Other similar efforts over the years have gone nowhere.

[Click here for photos of our most visible garden-side additions to brick and block units. They include rows and units in every stage of change, and every variation in styles, materials and colors. It’s quite a hodgepodge!]

Brick row with a mix of addition styles.

Now’s the Time!

This long-overdue attention to conserving Greenbelt’s history, steering members to changes that are consistent with the character of this unique gem we call home, can no longer be avoided – we need to comply with the spirit and purpose of the new zone, especially the stated requirement that architectural review be done on alterations and additions.

With those decisions made, templates could then be provided for pre-approved designs for various projects, which would aid members in the approval process and even eliminate their need to hire an architect.

The Exception Process – a Giant Loophole

In addition to the need for GHI to write standards to use in reviewing changes to our homes, it needs to find an alternative to the current use of exceptions. The exceptions process effectively nullifies rules for anyone willing to endure the exception process or who’s simply well known to the board members at the time.

Here are just some of the flaws and unintended consequences of GHI’s current exception process.

  • Alterations and additions that are contrary to the mission, goals and principles of the GHI coop are approved and built, and they’re changing the character of our community, in most cases permanently. The result – the current hodgepodge. (Visitors wonder if we have no rules at all.)
  • Exceptions are a very inefficient use of the time of staff, the ARC, the Board of Directors, members seeking the exception and any neighbors who are asked to consent. They contribute significantly to the unusually high demand on Board members’ time, compared to the time demands on most coop and condo boards.
  • The applicants (especially pre-Zoom) are burdened with having to devote two whole evenings from their busy lives to show up in person and defend their request before both boards. Then no matter how the ARC votes, the applicant is told that its vote has no real effect (except advisory), and they must return the following month to plead their case again before the whole board, whose vote is the only one that matters.
  • An additional burden on the ARC and especially on the Board is the pressure they’re put under by applicants – often their friends or neighbors – to vote yes on their exception, no matter the merits of it. It’s really hard to say no to people you know!
  • Both exception review hearings are intimidating, stressful events for the member-applicant. During the roughly five years I served on the ARC I saw many applicants treated rudely.
  • Exception requests, when opposed by neighbors, often lead to whole courts becoming divided, neighbor against neighbor.
  • This harmful impact on neighbor relations is especially serious when the exception sought is precisely because the project required neighbor consent, and one or more neighbors oppose the exception. Then it’s infuriating when the exception is granted over the objection of neighbors whose consent was supposedly required. The members who withheld consent (perhaps on grounds of historic conservation) have put their court relations at risk – for nothing. To remedy this, the situations in which member consent is required should be reduced to the most impactful ones, and then respected.
  • Most projects – no matter how out of character they are with Greenbelt’s plan and architecture – are approved automatically as long as they follow technical specifications. So the exception review process is avoided altogether for most projects, no matter how severely they may change the character of the unit, the court and the community.

Alternative Process

What could replace the exception process? Common alternatives include an appeal process under specific circumstances, and more delegation to staff and relevant committees in the permitting process. Research into more successful and efficient processes used by condos, coops and HOA communities needs to be done. We’ll all benefit from a new process that’s less member-toxic and more member-friendly and helpful.

Compliance Task Force Needed to Study and Recommend Standards and Procedures

I urge the Buildings Committee to recommend a new task force to propose standards and principles that would be consistent with the purpose of our new zone.  Reference to the Historic District proposal from 1997 will give the group a huge start.

Compliance also requires reforming GHI procedures for approval of projects. We need procedures that produce better results for neighbors, the community, and posterity and that avoid the damage to relationships resulting from our exception system. Chad Williams, the county Planning Department liaison for Greenbelt in this matter, has already offered some examples of communities to be looked at for guidance.

The time has never been better to steer the GHI ship away from preference for individual preferences over the common good. Thankfully this wonderful experiment in utopian living is still standing – we just need to step up and be better stewards of it. It deserves it!

And in the process of complying with the spirit and purpose of our eagerly sought new zone, we’ll be making our community more beautiful, to the benefit of all. We’ll begin to live up to our vision statement:

GHI Vision Statement (from the GHI website).

We will provide affordable, well maintained homes in an attractive cooperative community. We will create a customer-focused culture in which members and employees are treated with the same level of respect, courtesy and attention that we would personally expect.

Below, examples of additions more harmonious with the original units and rows.

ATTACHMENT – SOURCES

COUNTY’S WEBSITE ABOUT GREENBELT NCOZ – Greenbelt NCOZ  | MNCPPC, MD

LANGUAGE RE GHI COMPLIANCE WITH THE NCOZ, FROM THE COUNTY’S STUDY REPORT 2020-Greenbelt-Neighborhood-Conservation-Overlay-Zone-Study-Final.pdf (ghi.coop)

From Summary, page 1:

The NCO Zone is “intended to protect and preserve the unique development features and character of established neighborhoods throughout the County, and to promote new development that is compatible with the existing neighborhood character.” This flexible tool builds on the standards for development, redevelopment, and alterations established throughout the County by the new Zoning Ordinance and incorporates revised or new standards designed for individual communities to better build upon and preserve identified unique attributes.

From Additional Planning Context, page 7

The [current] R-P-C Zone has proven ineffective. While it can and does continue to limit residential density within the Greenbelt R-P-C, there is little else this zone can do that would benefit the community. It is designed to require Detailed Site Plan review and approval for new development—even prior to the issuance of use and occupancy permits – but GHI is exempt from this requirement while Roosevelt Center and other residential development are subject to.

From Greenbelt NCO – page 9

While GHI is the largest property owner in the Greenbelt NCO Zone, it is not possible to codify any development standards that treat the GHI properties any differently than other properties in the NCO Zone or in the rest of the County. As such, the proposed NCO standards will not include any regulations or proposals specific to GHI; any such standards which may have been contained in the prior proposals by Clarion Associates and GHI will not be incorporated. 

From Overview of the Neighborhood, page 10

Historic Greenbelt: Architectural influences include the Art Deco style, as well as the International and Streamline Moderne styles.

The character-defining features of Greenbelt include common spaces, community spaces, the siting of buildings and courts according to the natural topography, and the architecture of the residential units.

Residential Development:  page 10 

There was no specific architectural style adopted for the buildings, but the emphasis was on good proportion and scale in the exterior facades with a harmonious use of materials and color, all in relation to the site groupings. The brick-clad buildings were constructed with gable slate roofs, unadorned wall surfaces and steel-sash casement windows. The concrete block buildings were constructed in the International style with flat roofs, white walls, and the lack of ornamentation. Brick rustication was used between the upper-floor windows to break up the massing of the buildings…

The architects grouped the flat and pitched-roof dwellings to achieve appealing vistas and aesthetic variation.

From Minimum Standards for the Approval of a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zone, page 14

An NCO Zone may only be approved by the District Council if the following standards are met:

B: Development patterns in the NCO Zone demonstrate an effort to maintain or rehabilitate the character, including, but not limited to, the historic character of existing communities, and physical features of existing buildings in the zone. The City of Greenbelt, GHI, the Roosevelt Center Merchants’ Association, Prince George’s County Library System, and other key property owners play an active and ongoing role in maintaining the historic character of Greenbelt, one of only three New Deal green towns in America. Renovations of existing structures are subject to architectural guidelines in GHI. 

The intense interest of the City and community in pursuing the NCO Zone itself is drawn from the deep desire of all stakeholders to maintain the historic character and physical features of Greenbelt.

C: The development standards proposed to be applied to the zone will encourage the retention of the general character and appearance of existing development in the zone. Compliance with this standard will be determined through the legislative process when the District Council reviews and approves the proposed development standards in an upcoming draft Council Bill.  The standards of the draft bill will be designed to facilitate and encourage retention of the general character and appearance of the existing development.

RELEVANT LANGUAGE IN THE COUNTY’S ORDINANCE, CB104-2021  CB-2021104 DOES THIS WORK? 

Purpose: The Greenbelt Neighborhood Conservation Overlay (NCO) Zone is 7 established and intended to protect and preserve unique development features and the character 8 of the historic New Deal community of Greenbelt.

Additions or expansions to existing single-family 2 detached, townhouse, two-family, or three-family residential dwelling units shall not exceed a cumulative sum of 60 percent of the gross floor area of the original dwelling unit as constructed. No alteration, expansion, enlargement, or extension shall exceed the height of the existing dwelling unit. Alterations, expansions, enlargements, or extensions shall maintain the roofline of the existing dwelling unit.

Garages may only be used for vehicle parking or 24 general storage (not residential or any other uses).

In the RSF-A Zone, two-story additions or expansions shall only be placed on the garden side (or rear yard, when the garden side does not apply), or in the side yard of an end unit. Any additions or expansions in the service side (or front yard, when the service side does not apply) shall not exceed one story in height.

Accessory Structures: Residential accessory structures including but not limited to sheds, fences, and porches shall be permitted. For accessory structures located within the RSF-A Zone, such structures should generally be located on the garden side (or rear yard, when the garden side does not apply) or in the side yard of an end unit. Accessory structures may only be located on the service side (or front yard, when the service side does not apply) if the applicant demonstrates it is infeasible to locate such structures elsewhere on the lot due to utility locations CB-104-2021 (DR-3) or other constraints.

From Section 2:
The District Council…. , finds that the neighborhood study specifies the development context for the Greenbelt Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zone as required by Section 27-4403(a)(2) and is establishing the development standards of this Ordinance to maintain the historic character of Greenbelt.

SECTION 3. BE IT FURTHER ENACTED that prior to taking action on this Ordinance, 11 the District Council has reviewed the minimum standards for designation of an NCO Zone as 12 required by Section 27-4403(a)(3) and finds that at least 65 percent of the properties in the Greenbelt Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zone are developed, development patterns in historic Greenbelt demonstrate an effort to maintain or rehabilitate the character and physical features of existing buildings in the NCO Zone, the development standards contained in this Ordinance will encourage the retention of the general character and appearance of existing development in the zone, and the Greenbelt Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zone features unique and distinctive land use patterns, integrated mixed-use residential, commercial, institutional, and recreational uses, and a walkable neighborhood scale that make the area well suited for designation as a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zone.

END OF ATTACHMENT

Follow Susan Harris:
“Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV.

3 Responses

  1. Susan Johnson
    | Reply

    I was interested and surprised to read the proposal above. I have to admit I have scratched my head sometimes wondering why a modern or a colonial style, for example, addition was added on to a New Deal era home. But then this is Greenbelt! Home to a hodgepodge of people who have their own way of looking at the world. We have a variety of people who are artistic, scientific, hard workers in blue collar jobs, families, singles, elderly and young folks raising young children. There was always a variety of people here, but the homes were designed to be affordable in an era of economic difficulty. Some people added on to their homes to accommodate a growing family, and they probably followed an affordable design. I have often heard that the process of getting approval was lengthy and difficult and that needs to be changed. But let’s not think that everything has to match. New brick doesn’t really match old brick, leaving the homeowner with the requirement to paint the entire house. I can understand that some guidelines need to be met, but let’s be reasonable. This is not Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria or SW Washington by the waterfront. This is Greenbelt in PG County. And, by the way, what ever happened to the communities that used to live in those areas? The face of those populations changed quite a bit, hasn’t it.
    So, I hope that as this process evolves that the folks who actually live inside these homes are not forgotten. Why was I surprised to read through this proposal? Because views of our home were pictured twice in the section showing additions that don’t match. I don’t know which of the previous owners came up with the design, or why. We have lived here less than a year and a half. I hope my very elderly neighbor hasn’t turned in to this site, because her house is also shown in the same section, probably without her prior knowledge either. I doubt that she will feel any more comfortable about it than I do.

  2. Tom Jones
    | Reply

    “templates could then be provided for pre-approved designs for various projects, which would aid members in the approval process and even eliminate their need to hire an architect.”

    This would be absolutely awesome, and a massive benefit to GHI members. But I’ll be astonished if it ever happens. From my experience, the kind of people who create new rules they can apply to other people never make things easier or cheaper—it’s always more frustrating and more expensive.

    On the whole, this new pile of NCOZ restrictions seems destined to make it harder for families to stay in GHI, harder for older GHI residents to age in place, and harder for all members to improve our homes. Don’t we have enough rules already?

  3. Maria Silvia Miller
    | Reply

    Good history and explanation of new zoning and problems with exceptions

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