MOUNT AIRY - The developer's bulldozer could pose less of a threat to streams, woodlands and other natural features if a zoning ordinance change proposed Monday becomes reality.

The town planning commission approved a zoning amendment that would allow developers to build housing units in greater density in exchange for leaving natural features on a parcel undisturbed. The measure now goes to the town council, which will make the final decision.

"We have gone through many, many gyrations and many machinations on this," commission chairman Fred Goundry said. "But pending approval of the town council, I feel we have a good piece of legislation here."

The proposed amendment, called the "performance option," has been debated by Mount Airy administrators for more than five years. It's aimed at giving developers incentive to preserve natural features on developable land.

It's not a zoning category, but rather an option that would apply to areas zoned R1, a low-density residential designation that allows no more than three housing units per acre. Only single-family detached homes are permitted in R1.

But if approved by the council, the performance option could allow a developer to build town houses or apartments on an R1 tract, in exchange for leaving intact a stand of trees or other natural feature.

One advantage of the measure is that there's something in it for the town and the developers, said Judith Rabb, a planning consultant contracted by the town.

"Open space in a development is a selling point," said Rabb, who presented the proposed amendment to the commission. "So there's a value there for them (developers), too."

It would be up to a developer to apply for the option and show the commission that a development plan could benefit a parcel. The commission would make a recommendation to the council, which would make the final decision.

After conducting a public hearing, the commission honed the measure and approved it unanimously. The council will conduct its own hearing and could vote on the amendment in December.

In other action Monday:

* Political campaign signs in residents' yards would be more tightly regulated if a measure the commission approved gets passed by the council.

The measure, a proposed zoning ordinance amendment, would limit the size of campaign signs to six square feet. Also, the signs only could be up 45 days before an election and seven days after.

Residents would be required to notify the town office when planning to erect the signs.

* A measure that would simplify the procedure to amend the town's subdivision regulations gained approval by the commission.

Currently the commission is required to hold a public hearing on a change in the regulations before making a recommendation to the council, which also has to have a hearing before acting on such measures.

The amendment approved last night would eliminate the requirement for a hearing by the commission. The council would hold the only public hearing, but the commission still would study amendments and make recommendations to the council.

"It's a way of streamlining the procedure," said Rabb. "There would be one less public hearing to hold and it would make things less confusing."

The amendment now goes on to the council.

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