Otis Street in Mount Rainier. If you wanted to build here today, you couldn't make it look like this. Image by Google Maps.

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb that is beloved by its residents. Its tree-lined streets, Sears Craftsman bungalows, garden apartments, and funky commercial corridor have unique and undeniable charm. And under Prince George’s County’s current zoning laws, almost none of it could be built today.

One man’s zoning violation is another’s livable, walkable community

Zoning laws regulate urban form and land use, and are among the most powerful tools that local governments have to shape development. They have sometimes been put to very clumsy use, however, to the point where established and vibrant neighborhoods in many communities could not be built today.

Over at Strong Towns, Nolan Gray shared the story of the Kenwick neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky, where almost every lot in the neighborhood is nonconforming to the current zoning. That means something about what’s happening on the lot, either in terms of the structures or how much space it takes up, violates the restrictions of the zone that the local jurisdiction has bound to the lot. In Kenwick and other older neighborhoods, this happened because the communities were built before the zoning ordinance was adopted, and they were just grandfathered in.

Gray highlights that nonconformity is a problem not only because it prevents us from building new neighborhoods in the model of existing great neighborhoods, but because it imposes extra transaction costs on property owners in these historic areas: every time a landowner wants to make an improvement to their parcel, they have to obtain a variance.

This is a real problem in our region too. In Mount Rainier, some blocks are made up almost entirely of nonconforming structures. For example, it is typical for residential zones such as Prince George’s County’s R-55 Zone to restrict the percentage of the total lot that can be covered by the dwelling unit. For R-55, it’s 30%.

But on Otis Street and Eastern Avenue in Mount Rainier, where homes were first built in the 1920s as part of the Funkhouser & Marshall’s Subdivision, 22 out of 30 residential parcels are nonconforming, with lot coverages over 30% (one lot is at 60%!).

A typical residential block in Mount Rainier, MD. Lot lines are shown in yellow, and building footprints in light blue. Lot coverage is the percentage of the lot area that is covered by the building. Base image from Google maps, with GIS overlays by the author.

Zones of all types typically also have setback requirements that prevent the landowner from building right up to the lot line. In some cases, these setbacks make sense— depending on the zoned use of a particular parcel and its neighbors, if the landowner was allowed to build right up to the lot line that could affect the buildability (and thus the value) of the adjacent parcels. Regulating setbacks can be common sense and fair.

However, in R-55 the setback requirement is 25 feet in front and eight feet on each side. In reality, it’s not uncommon for homes in Mount Rainier to be closer together and closer to the street. On one block of Perry Street, homes are as close as seven feet total from side to side, and the front facades are at the lot line.

When this block was originally built, a group of four houses was built with empty lots in between, and when the empty lots filled in with houses later the front setbacks were matched, creating an attractive, uniform, dense, and highly walkable street front. The homes have front yards that actually consist of undeveloped public right-of-way. This situation is also common in the District of Columbia.

Typical Mount Rainier bungalows on Perry Street. R-55 zoning requires these houses to be 16 feet apart and 25 feet further back. But in reality, they are only 7 feet apart. Image by Brent Bolin.

Many of the original settlers of Mount Rainier operated home-based businesses, including retail operations. Even in suburban places, the mixing of uses on individual parcels was once the norm. The house on the corner of 31st Street and Bunker Hill Road was once both a home and the District Grocery.

Today, the lot is zoned R-20, which allows only residential use. With the evolution of the service and craft economies, and the changing face of retail, home-based businesses are once again becoming prevalent in Mount Rainier. But now many are operated illegally.

A side view of the former District Grocery from 31st Street. Image by Brent Bolin.

So why is this attractive?

What exactly makes a “charming older neighborhood” charming? In part it is nostalgia for vernacular American housing styles such as bungalows and foursquares, and in part it is age itself: neighborhoods like Mount Rainier looked lived in, as structures accumulated over time through infill development. Communities like Mount Rainier don’t look like they were plotted and planned in advance (even though they were!).

The historical charm of Mount Rainier is also a function of it’s pre-car birthdate: the setbacks, lot coverage, and mix of uses that are nonconforming today date from a time when pedestrians were the dominant travel mode.

Because of its unique urban form and diverse mix of housing types, Mount Rainier has the highest population density of any incorporated area in the state of Maryland, while still preserving the feel of a cozy suburb. For example, this typical Mount Rainier home contains a separate basement apartment. It is a living model for how “stable” neighborhoods like much of Northwest Washington, DC could densify without losing their character.

This single family home in Mount Rainier has been converted into two units. Image by Google Street View.

Can zoning fix zoning?

The Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission has recognized in the past that Mount Rainier’s urban form is very different from other parts of the county. The Gateway Arts District Overlay Zone established smaller setback requirements and, most notably, allows the construction or conversion/creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) either as accessory structures or within single-family homes, a very hot topic in our region and in land use planning and housing advocacy in cities around the US.

Many jurisdictions have tuned in to the problems that obsolete zoning codes create. For example, the new DC zoning code, which took effect last September, now allows ADUs across much of the city.

Prince George’s County is also undertaking the major task of modernizing the zoning code. For Mount Rainier, the devil is in the details. A major goal of the Prince George’s County zoning rewrite is to eliminate miscellaneous overlay zones that complicate enforcement and permitting.

It is certainly true that the Gateway Arts District Overlay is very complicated and has been subject to enough amendments and variances to raise the question of whether it does anything. However, the current drafts for proposed new zones have raised concerns in Mount Rainier that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater.

M-NCPPC has said there will be no changes to R-55 except for the name, which would bring an end to the creation of new basement apartments and or accessory living spaces in the Gateway Arts District. The overlay also contained numerous very well-thought out adjustments to R-55 and other zones that were developed with major community input.

Will all this effort be lost? The current draft modules suggest so. However, the revised modules are anticipated any day. Stay tuned!

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.

Brent Bolin is a community activist and non-profit executive with a background in environmental law, science, and policy. He is passionate about social justice, clean water, sustainable urbanism, and the Anacostia River. Brent served on the city council in Mount Rainier, MD and (rarely) blogs about local development issues.