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New Recreation Guidelines in Montgomery County:  A Mixed Bag of Positives and Negatives  

10/24/2016
The Montgomery County Planning Board is considering draft revisions to the County’s Recreation Guidelines, which will apply to all residential development with more than 19 dwelling units.  The draft guidelines are very similar in format to the current guidelines: for each project, the number and type of dwelling units proposed generates a recreation “demand,” which has to be satisfied by providing a minimum number of “supply” points.  The proposed guidelines have some elements that will increase flexibility and ease of use for developers.  At the same time, for some projects the draft guidelines may increase the cost of compliance. Significant changes include:
  • a longer list of recreation facilities to choose from;
  • reductions in the points available for a few common recreation facilities like an open lawn area and a picnic/seating area;
  • a reduction in the geographic area from which developers can get credit for existing public recreation facilities such as public parks and school playgrounds;
  • lowering the applicability threshold from 25 dwelling units to 20;
  • splitting the “adult” age group into “young adult” (18-34) and “adult” (35-64);
  • an interactive web-based tool that will make it easier to calculate demand and supply points; and
  • bonuses for making a recreation facility open to the public or providing a facility that fulfills a recommendation from a master plan or the Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Plan.
                The existing and proposed guidelines are applied to a hypothetical development below.  The example suggests that the proposed guidelines require more facilities to meet the demand requirement than the current guidelines, but some of the big point generators are facilities that are common in a multi-family building, like an indoor fitness facility, so it was not difficult to put together a compliant package.
                The existing Recreation Guidelines, dating from 1992, list 28 recreation facilities for which points can be obtained.  The proposed guidelines carry forward 27 of those facilities and add 45 new ones.  Many of the new facility types are designed to reflect the County’s increasing urbanization and the need for different types of recreation facilities in urban or urbanizing areas than in traditional suburban developments, as well an increasing focus on fitness.  Examples include a heart smart trail, an indoor bicycle repair room, a dog park or dog run, a yoga room, an indoor fitness room, open grass areas in three sizes (small, large, and urban), a resident lounge, an internet café, an urban plaza, a through-block connection, and a lap pool or lounge pool.  The list also includes major recreation facilities such as a soccer-lacrosse rectangle, a public park, a community use urban park, an indoor or outdoor swimming pool, a recreation center, and a cultural facility.  The 62 facility types listed in the draft guidelines include 10 recreation “elements,” such as a picnic/seating area, a grilling area, an outdoor fitness station and a bicycle support station.  These do not qualify as a full recreation facility – meaning that they cannot be the main source of recreation points, but can be used to fill in a gap where a project needs a small number of points to fulfill its supply requirement.   This is a direct response to frustration the Planning Board has expressed in the past with projects that relied heavily on inexpensive features such as benches, which qualified for recreation supply points under the 1992 guidelines, but did not provide for active recreation.  The draft guidelines clearly emphasize active recreation.
                The points allocated to each facility type in the draft guidelines are the same in many cases as under the 1992 guidelines, with a few notable changes: 
  • A large grassy lawn area (10,000 square feet) receives half as many points for adults.
  • A multi-age playground receives significantly fewer points for adults and seniors.
  • A tennis court receives more points for kids, fewer points for teens, 75% fewer points for adults.
  • Small/medium soccer fields receive half as many points for kids and teens, 75% fewer points for adults.
                The draft guidelines tighten up considerably the credit for off-site, publicly-owned recreation facilities.  Under the existing guidelines, a project may receive credit for public facilities within one mile of the site boundary, provided such facilities are “safely linked to the site and reasonably accessible by foot or bicycle.”  The credit must not exceed 35% of the supply points for each population category.  Under the proposed guidelines, the same 35% can come from off-site facilities, but they must be located within a 1/2-mile walking distance (a 10-minute walk) in most of the County, or a 3/4-mile walking distance (a 15-minute walk) in the northern and western parts of the County, where development is less dense.  This change is likely to make it more difficult to obtain the full 35% from off-site facilities, for two reasons.  First, the relevant geographic area changes from one mile to 1/2 a mile or 3/4 of a mile.  Second, the way the area is measured changes from a radius, more or less as the crow flies, to a stricter measurement of actual walking time along sidewalks or paths.  
                Another proposed change that may make it more complicated to plan recreational facilities is splitting the “adult” age group, which covers ages 18 to 64 in the 1992 guidelines, into “young adult,” ages 18-34, and “adult,” ages 35-65.  This means that each project must satisfy recreation demand for six age groups instead of five.  Moreover, the new “young adult” age group is associated with a greater demand for active recreation than the previous “adult” age group, which may make compliance more challenging.
                The thorny problem of whether to allow stormwater management facilities to be incorporated into recreation facilities was a point of contention among Planning Board members in their early discussions.  As I noted in an earlier post about Common Open Space, certain members of the Planning Board consider it a priority to ensure that residential projects include areas for active recreation.  Similarly, some members of the Planning Board desire to prohibit stormwater management facilities from being incorporated into recreation facilities, while other members appreciate the need for flexibility.  The current draft of the guidelines provides that a development “featuring exceptional site design” may include a stormwater management facility as part of a recreation facility if the site accommodates “a significant, full recreation facility for active recreation.”   Examples include a dog park; a paved, attractive walking path; or a bicycle training track.
                The draft guidelines are accompanied by a new, interactive website that greatly simplifies the process of determining which combinations of facilities will generate the requisite recreation supply points.  Instead of doing calculations by hand, practitioners can go to the web site, input the number and type of dwelling units proposed, and see the resulting recreation demand, broken down into age groups.  The next step is to input the site location and see what existing recreation facilities are available to provide credit for the project.  The web site generates a map showing the 10-minute or 15-minute “walkshed” and the recreation facilities located within it, although practitioners will want to scrutinize the walkshed map carefully to make sure it matches up with reality.  Anecdotal reports suggest that the web tool sometimes fails to see pedestrian connections that exist on the ground.  The next step is to select from a table the types of recreation facilities the developer proposes for the project.  The web site will calculate the number of supply points those facilities generate and indicate which age categories are satisfied, and which have a shortfall.  It is easy to try different options among the listed facilities, depending on the character of the project, the target market, or other project-specific factors, and see how many supply points each set of options generates.  The web site also allows the user to print a report that can be submitted with a development application to demonstrate compliance. 
                Another potentially helpful feature of the draft guidelines is the option to seek approval for a “Custom” recreation facility, i.e., one that is not on the pre-defined list.  The applicant must submit a justification statement and a detailed facility description, which are evaluated by staff and, ultimately, the Planning Board. 
                The below table offers an example of how the recreation requirement works out for a development with 50 townhouses and 100 high-rise multi-family units under the 1992 guidelines v. the proposed guidelines.  For the sake of simplicity, off-site facilities are not considered.  The example starts with a similar selection of recreation facilities.  However, it rapidly becomes necessary to add more facilities to meet the demand requirement under the new guidelines, principally because a 10,000 square foot grassy area generates fewer supply points for adults under the new guidelines, and the six picnic/seating areas that were a primary feature under the 1992 guidelines have now been reduced to an “element” that can be used only for a small number of points.  Nonetheless, adding two items that are common in today’s multi-family buildings was sufficient to come within the required ten percent of the demand requirement, so satisfying the guidelines was not onerous. 
 
OPEN QUESTIONS AND NEXT STEPS
 
                 The Planning Board is scheduled to have a public hearing on the proposed recreation guidelines on November 17, to be followed by a work session on January 19, 2018.  Expected points of discussion include credit for off-site facilities, whether to allow stormwater management as part of a recreation facility, and how large a bonus to provide for facilities that are open to the public.  For members of the development community interested in influencing the outcome of these discussions, speaking at the public hearing on November 17 or submitting written comments are great opportunities to have input.  

COMPARISON OF RECREATION FACILITIES NEEDED UNDER 1992 GUIDELINES V. PROPOSED GUIDELINES FOR HYPOTHETICAL PROJECT
 
1992 Recreation Guidelines
Demand
  Tots Children Teens Adults Seniors
TH Demand (50 du) 8.5 11 9 64.5 3.5
MF Demand (100 du) 4 4 4 77 46
Total 12.5 15 13 141.5 49.5
Supply
1 Multi-Age Playground 9 11 3 7 1
6 Picnic/Seating Area 6 6 9 30 12
1 Open Play Area I (10,000 SF) 6 9 12 30 2
1 Pedestrian System 1.3 3 2.6 63.7 22.3
1 Natural Area 0 1.5 1.3 14.2 2.5
1 Community Garden 1.3 1.5 1.3 28.3 12.4
Total 23.60 32.00 29.20 173.20 52.18
 
Draft 2016 Recreation Guidelines
Demand
  Tots Children Teens Young Adults Adults Seniors
TH Demand (50 du) 7 11 8 26.50 36.50 5.50
MF Demand (100 du) 10 7 3 73 56 25
Total 17 18 11 99.5 92.5 30.5
Supply
1 Multi-Age Playground 9 11 3 2 4 2
1 Open Grass Area Lawn, Large
(10,000 SF)
6 9 15 20 15 6
1 Heart Smart Trail 0 9 10 12 12 12
1 Natural Area .85 .9 1.1 9.95 9.25 1.5
1 Community Garden 1.7 1.8 1.1 14.9 18.5 7.6
1 Picnic/Seating Area 1 1 1.5 3 3 3
1 Indoor Fitness Room 0 1.8 1.1 24.9 18.5 4.6
1 Multi-Purpose Lobby Area (includes space for socializing) 0 0 2 3 3 2
Total 18.55 34.50 34.80 89.75 83.25 38.7
 
The Public Hearing Draft  of the Recreation Guidelines is available at:
  http://montgomeryplanning.org/planning/functional-planning/recreation-guidelines/
The web tool is available at:
http://mcatlas.org/recreation