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Resident's Guide to Zoning of Land in Montgomery County

This brochure, one of a series, introduces you to the concept of zoning and how it is used in Montgomery County, Maryland. The Montgomery County Planning Board of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission invites residents to participate in the planning process, which includes the zoning process.

In this brochure, you will learn:

Why Zoning of land is important to you
The relationship between Master Plans and Zoning
Zoning Ordinance
The Planning Board role in Zoning
Houses of Worship
Types of Zoning
How zoning is changed
Special Exceptions and Mandatory Referrals

Why Zoning of land is important to you

Zoning of land is important to citizens of the County because it is a legal tool used by local government to regulate the use of private property for the purposes of protecting public health, safety, and welfare. Zoning is also used to foster orderly development patterns and to implement the planning policies established by the General Plan, area master plans and related functional plans. In Montgomery County, this power is exercised by the County Council.

The Montgomery County Council, also known as the District Council on land use and zoning matters:

  • establishes the Planning Board work program and approves its budget
  • approves area and functional master plans
  • regulates zoning and land uses in the County, except in the seven municipalities of Barnesville, Brookeville, Gaithersburg, Laytonsville, Rockville, Poolesville, and Washington Grove

The relationship between Master Plans & Zoning

The link between planning and zoning is critical. Zoning controls are based on sound planning principles as set forth in adopted and approved plans. Although the recommendations in master plans shape communities by recommending the type and density of land use, or propose a desirable zone for a particular tract of land, these recommendations can be implemented only through the zoning process.

Zoning is the tool to implement master plan recommendations and is a legislative action that can be taken only by the County Council. Zoning involves imposing specified conditions regulating the development and use of a particular parcel or parcels of land.

The Zoning Ordinance

The Zoning Ordinance, adopted by the County Council, defines and describes various zones and specifies detailed procedures governing a change of zoning. The Zoning Ordinance:

  • describes and lists all the zones and the uses that are permitted as a matter of right in each zone
  • establishes standards for each zone that limit density, the location of structures, building heights, setbacks from property lines, and other requirements
  • sets forth the procedures to change the zones (rezoning)
  • identifies different development methods allowed in residential zones and numerous development options available for use in commercial and industrial zones
  • describes special exception uses that may be allowed in certain zones, but that require review and approval before use
  • describes variances that relieve a property owner from specified zoning requirements or standards if it is demonstrated that strict application of the zoning regulations would result in practical difficulties or undue hardship because of exceptional conditions of shape, topography, or other situations peculiar to the property

The Zoning Ordinance is an evolving document. It is frequently updated and changed when the County Council adopts zoning text amendments. The changes can be minor, such as correcting typographical or editorial errors, or they can be major, such as creating a new zone, adding new exceptions and exemptions to the regulations, or removing them.

You may purchase the Zoning Ordinance through the Montgomery County Office of the County Attorney, 101 Monroe Street, Third Floor, Rockville, 240-777-6700. A paper copy or a CD-ROM copy is available, or both for a discounted price.

In addition, reference copies of the Zoning Ordinance and its updates are sent to all County public libraries. The Zoning Ordinance may also be viewed or retrieved on-line at and is accessible via Montgomery County's home page: under "Charter and County Code."

The Planning Board's Role in Zoning

The Montgomery County Planning Board, composed of five citizen members appointed by the County Council, is the County Council's principal adviser on land use, community planning, and zoning issues. Among its activities, the Planning Board:

  • recommends to Council members which new master plans or amendments to master plans they should review and prepare
  • develops, in an extensive public process, functional plans and area master plans and transmits a final draft to Council for additional public review and approval
  • as the final arbiter, implements the subdivision and site plan review processes to ensure that proposed development complies with the requirements of the applicable zone
  • reviews and makes recommendations to the Council on rezoning cases
  • reviews or prepares amendments to the text of the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations, which are forwarded to the Council for action
  • acting in an advisory capacity, offers comments and recommendations on land use and community planning implications to:
    • the Board of Appeals, which makes the final decision on special exception and variance applications
    • other government agencies on mandatory referrals for facilities on government- owned land in Montgomery County

For more information about the Planning Board and its authority and functions, see the companion brochure, A Resident's Guide to The Park and Planning Commission in Montgomery County.

To contact the Planning Board:

Write: Chairman
Montgomery County Planning Board
8787 Georgia Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20901
Fax: 301-495-1320

Houses of Worship

It is important to note that houses of worship are permitted by right in most zones if they meet the requirements of the zone, such as building height (steeples are exempt from height limits), setbacks, parking, etc. However, houses of worship must apply for and receive subdivision approval from the Planning Board and are subject to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

Types of Zoning

There are two basic types of zoning the Conventional or Euclidean Zones; and Floating Zones.

Conventional (Euclidean) Zones

Conventional zoning or Euclidean Zoning is the oldest type of zoning dating back to 1926 when the town of Euclid, Ohio had the nation's first comprehensive zoning ordinance upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. It is often easier to develop land under a Euclidean Zone because it:

  • contains fixed standards
  • permits certain land uses by right, as long as prescribed standards such as lot size, building height, and setbacks from other buildings and property lines are met.

Once standards and requirements are satisfied, the Department of Permitting Services, 250 Hungerford Drive in Rockville 240-777-6200, issues a permit and construction can begin.

Euclidean Zones fall into four categories:

  • Residential
    In residential zones, housing ranges from single-family detached houses on lots of varying sizes to high-rise apartments with varying densities is permitted.
  • Commercial
    Commercial zones provide for retail, office, or service-commercial development.
  • Industrial
    Light and heavy industrial zones permit a range and intensity of employment and industrial uses. Heavier industrial uses often are located together in an industrial area.
  • Agricultural
    Agricultural zoning was developed to preserve the thousands of acres of agricultural land still existing in the County. In particular, the Rural Density Transfer (RDT) Zone is designed to preserve agricultural land in the County by allowing development rights to be transferred to certain non-agricultural areas, identified in master plans as "receiving areas."

NOTE: For more details, see the booklet entitled, Plowing New Ground: Agricultural Preservation in Montgomery County, available from the Planning Board's Information and Publications Section at 8787 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, 301-495-4610.

Floating Zones

Floating zones are a more flexible approach to zoning regulation that encourages creativity of design, permits specialized land development, and provides more flexibility in standards and requirements than the Euclidean zones. In exchange for the greater flexibility of standards, an applicant must allow the Planning Board to make a detailed site plan review that takes into account how compatible the proposed development is internally to the site and externally to the surrounding area.

To approve a floating zone, the County Council must find the proposed rezoning to be compatible with surrounding uses and in accord with the expressed purposes and other requirements of the zone, as well as the General Plan. While all floating zones have site plan review by the Planning Board, not all Euclidian zones do. The traditional finding of change or mistake required for the grant of a Euclidian zone is not required for a floating zone.

There are many types of floating zones in the Montgomery County Zoning Ordinance that require varying levels of commitment by the applicant prior to receiving final permission to develop. They are basically divided into two types: a) Development plan zones and b) Non-development plan zones.

How Zoning is changed

The process of changing zoning may be initiated either by the property owner or by the government and is implemented through a:

  • local zoning map amendment which is requested by a property owner for a single parcel of land; or
  • sectional zoning map amendment, comprehensive zoning initiated by the District Council, which has full authority and responsibility for all rezoning decisions that cover a designated area. A District Map Amendment is a comprehensive zoning for the entire Maryland-Washington Regional District in Montgomery County.
To apply for a local zoning map amendment:
  • The developer or property owner must submit an application to the Montgomery County Hearing Examiner, who is appointed by the County Council.
  • The application is sent to the Planning Board to review as part of its regular public meeting, which reserves a portion of time to encourage residents' comments.

The Hearing Examiner reviews the application, as well as the Planning Board's and its staff's recommendations, and holds a public hearing to gather residents' input.

  • After the public hearing, the Hearing Examiner forwards a recommendation and the Planning Board's and its staff's recommendations to the County Council.
  • The County Council conducts a public meeting to approve, deny, remand for further information, dismiss or allow the application to be withdrawn.
  • The applicant of an approved Council rezoning must return to the Planning Board again for the subdivision and site plan review process, if applicable (see A Resident's Guide to the Subdivision Review Process brochure).

Special Exceptions and Mandatory Referrals

Special Exceptions

The Zoning Ordinance identifies uses as Special Exceptions in certain zones, which means they are only permitted in the given zone after additional review. The applicant applies for a special exception to the Board of Appeals, which reviews, then approves or denies, applications on a case-by-case basis, after receiving an advisory recommendation from the Planning Board. After a special exception application is approved, as long as the use of the property and adherence to the conditions of approval are maintained, the special exception can continue. The special exception then "runs with the land" even if the property's ownership changes.

For details, refer to "A Resident's Guide to Special Exceptions" or contact the Board of Appeals, 100 Maryland Avenue, Rockville; 240-777-6600.

Mandatory Referrals

State law (Article 28) authorizes the Planning Board to advise government agencies on proposed land use changes and development on federal, state, and county-owned land through a mandatory referral process. With input from the public and its staff, the Planning Board makes recommendations to government agencies, such as the Montgomery County Public Schools, Department of Public Works and Transportation, the State Highway Administration, etc., on public projects such as schools and libraries.

When changes are proposed for federal land located in Montgomery County, the Planning Board reviews proposed development and sends advisory comments to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), 801 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.; 202-482-7200. For details, refer to "A Resident's Guide to Mandatory Referrals."

The Hearing Examiner in the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings, 100 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, 270-777-6660; hears zoning cases and compiles an official record for review by the County Council.