(3) Rezoning

Changes to existing zones occur either through zoning map amendments or sectional map amendments. Zoning map amendments are requested by a property owner for a single parcel of land, whereas sectional map amendments are initiated by the District Council and cover a designated area. The District Council has full authority and responsibility for all rezoning decisions.

(a) Zoning Map Amendments
Before approving a change to a conventional zone, the District Council must determine that there has either been a substantial change in the character of the neighborhood or that a mistake was made either in the original zoning or the most recent sectional map amendment. The change or mistake finding does not apply to floating zones. Approval of a floating zone depends upon demonstrating conformance with master plan recommendations, the provision of adequate public facilities and market support for retail-commercial development.

Applications for zoning map amendments are processed as follows:
  1. Filing: Applications are filed with the Development Review Division of the M-NCPPC Planning Department. Individuals may submit applications between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on any business day. The offices are located on the 4th floor of the County Administration Building. Any person may review and copy an application and supporting documents. Following staff's acceptance of the application, a notification is sent to adjoining property owners advising them of the pending request. Any individual may become a person of record by requesting such in writing or by testifying before the Zoning Hearing Examiner. Persons of record are notified of all upcoming hearings and receive copies of the technical staff report and the results of all decisions made with regard to the application.
  2. Technical Staff Report: The M-NCPPC Planning Department staff analyzes the request and prepares a technical staff report recommending approval, approval with conditions, or denial. The report is submitted to the Planning Board, Zoning Hearing Examiner, District Council, all persons of record and any interested person requesting a copy.
  3. Planning Board Review and Action: Zoning Map Amendment applications are eligible for review by the Planning Board during its regularly scheduled Thursday meetings. A public hearing before the Planning Board is not mandatory for these cases. At the request of an interested party, or upon its own motion, the Planning Board may decide, by majority vote, to hold a public hearing. If the Planning Board does not vote to hear the case, the staff recommendation will immediately be forwarded to the Zoning Hearing Examiner. If the Planning Board votes to hear the case, it will be set in for a hearing on a future agenda date and notice will be given of the date and time. At the hearing, the applicant and any interested persons may testify before the Planning Board in response to the technical staff report. Testimony may be oral or written. All testimony becomes part of the official record that will be forwarded to the District Council. The board may concur with the technical staff report or make a different recommendation. The Planning Board recommendation is provided in the form of a resolution and is transmitted to the Zoning Hearing Examiner and District Council, along with copies of all other official record materials.
  4. Notice of Public Hearing: The Zoning Hearing Examiner establishes the hearing schedule for zoning cases. The examiner sends hearing notices to persons of record and publishes the notices in the County's newspapers of record. Also, the M-NCPPC Planning Department staff posts the property with a sign indicating the time and place of the hearing.
  5. Public Hearing: The Zoning Hearing Examiner conducts the official County zoning hearings. All materials and testimony presented before the examiner constitute the official record in the case. This includes the Planning Board resolution, the technical staff report and all other materials forwarded by the Planning Board. After the hearing, all persons of record receive a written decision which contains findings of facts, conclusions of law and the recommended action. The hearing examiner's decision is forwarded to the District Council.
  6. Oral Argument: Within 30 days after the filing of the Zoning Hearing Examiner's decision with the District Council, any person of record or the People's Zoning Counsel may file exceptions to any portion of the decision and request oral argument before the District Council. Oral argument allows persons of record to speak to the District Council about the case. Only issues contained in the official record may be discussed during oral argument.
  7. District Council Action: Notice of action taken by the District Council is transmitted to persons of record. District Council actions may be appealed to the Circuit Court. The District Council may:
    1. Grant the proposed rezoning
    2. Grant a less intensive zone for all or part of the property
    3. Deny the application
    4. Return the application to the hearing examiner or Planning Board for further evidence
    5. Dismiss the application
    6. Allow it to be withdrawn
  8. Conditional Zoning: In approving any individual zoning map amendment, the District Council may adopt reasonable requirements and safeguards known as conditions, that are designed to protect the neighboring area from adverse effects which might result from the rezoning or to enhance the quality of the new development. The applicant must accept or reject the zoning classification as conditionally approved. If the conditions are rejected, the zoning map amendment is voided and the property reverts to the prior zone classification.
(b) Comprehensive Rezoning (Sectional Map Amendments)
Unlike zoning map amendments, comprehensive rezonings are not undertaken for individual properties. Instead, all of the zoning within an entire geographic area, such as a subregion or planning area, is examined. The result of the comprehensive rezoning process is a new zoning map for the subject area which is called a sectional map amendment.

The purposes of comprehensive rezoning are: a) to provide for a systematic review of zoning and land use and how they conform to the principles of orderly comprehensive land use planning, staged development and planned public facilities; b) to limit piecemeal rezoning; and c) to limit the zoning map amendment cases heard by the Zoning Hearing Examiner.

Typically, the comprehensive rezoning process results in a change of zoning for only some of the properties in the subject area. The remaining properties are left in their previous zones either because they are already developed or because a zoning change is not deemed appropriate. The Zoning Ordinance contains some limitations on the ability to rezone and on the zones which may be used.

The Zoning Ordinance stipulates three procedures which may be followed in preparing sectional map amendments. The procedure most commonly used today is preparation of a sectional map amendment concurrent with preparation of an area master plan. In this instance, a zoning proposal is prepared as one of the area master plan elements and is subject to public hearing along with the area master plan. At the conclusion of the process, the District Council approves both the area master plan and the sectional map amendment, simultaneously.

(c) Special Exceptions
The Zoning Ordinance permits certain uses that would not otherwise be allowed in a particular zone through grant of a special exception. The uses which may be allowed by special exception are listed in the Zoning Ordinance on a zone-by-zone basis. Special exception applications may be considered only for those uses listed as an allowable special exception under that zone.

Applications for special exception uses require a site plan showing all proposed improvements. These applications are reviewed to ensure that the proposed use is compatible with surrounding uses and the general neighborhood. Many special exceptions must also conform with their own unique set of requirements as stipulated in the Zoning Ordinance. Once approved, the property must be developed in accordance with the approved site plan. Processing procedures are similar to those described for individual zoning map amendments. However, in the case of a special exception, the Zoning Hearing Examiner is empowered to make the final decision unless a person of record appeals the case to the District Council.

(d) Variances
A variance is a mechanism to obtain relief from the strict application of the requirements of the Zoning Ordinance, such as building height, building setback and yard requirements. Variances are appropriate in situations where strict conformance would result in unusual practical difficulties or undue hardship for the owner of the property. For example, a lot might be so narrow as to make it impossible to observe the side yard setback requirements when building a home. The Board of Appeals is authorized to grant variances, except in instances where that authority is specifically reserved for the Planning Board and District Council. State law also permits the District Council to delegate authority to grant variances to municipal governments. As of this writing, this authority has been granted to the cities of Bowie, College Park and Greenbelt.

(e) Departures
A departure grants relief from the strict application of the Zoning Ordinance requirements for: (1) the design of parking and loading facilities, (2) the number of parking and loading spaces required, (3) sign regulations and (4) landscaping, buffering and screening requirements of the Landscape Manual. The Planning Board is authorized to grant departures. State law also permits the District Council to delegate authority to grant departures to municipal governments. As of this writing, this authority has been granted to the cities of Bowie, College Park and Greenbelt.

(f) Nonconforming Uses & Structures
There are some land uses and/or structures in existence which do not meet the current requirements of the Zoning Ordinance. These uses or structures are termed nonconforming. This has occurred in a variety of ways. In some cases, a land use was established prior to the initial zoning of the property. In other cases, a use was once permitted in a zone but has subsequently been disallowed or allowed only by a special exception. Also, there are some structures that were originally built according to all of the parking, setback, sign, etc., requirements of the ordinance but no longer meet these requirements because of a subsequent change in the regulations. The nonconforming uses and structures are considered to be grandfathered and allowed to remain as long as the use has never ceased for a period longer than 180 days. In certain circumstances, uses may be required to be recertified. Any alteration, enlargement, extension or reconstruction of a nonconforming use requires approval of a special exception.

(g) Text Amendments
The Zoning Ordinance is subject to review and amendment solely by the District Council, which may amend the text to create new zones or repeal zones. This process is called a text amendment. Similarly, it may add permitted uses to a zone, eliminate permitted uses from a zone or require the grant of a special exception. Indeed, any of the regulations may be changed through the text amendment process. A text amendment may be requested by the County Executive, the Planning Board or any interested individual or organization. In some instances, the District Council may initiate an amendment itself. Amending the Zoning Ordinance is a legislative process requiring a public hearing and approval by a majority of the council.