MOUNT AIRY - After being bandied about for six years, the growth tool known as the "performance option" came to the brink of reality Monday night.

Since the early 1980s, town administrators have considered the concept, which would allow developers to build homes in greater density than zoning allows in exchange for preserving natural features at a site.

The Town Council introduced a measure Monday that would amend the Mount Airy zoning ordinance to include the performance option.

The council scheduled a vote on the measure at its Jan. 7 meeting.

"I think it's going to be very popular from the developer's standpoint," said Fred Goundry, chairman of the town's Planning Commission.

Council members agreed the measure could prove to be very attractive to builders.

The option would apply only to residential projects and only in the town's R-1 residential zoning, the lowest-density zoning designation, allowing no more than three housing units per acre.

In theory, a developer could exceed that limit on one part of a piece of land, in exchange for not disturbing, say, a stream or woodland on another part.

Also, the town would waive the required setting aside of 10 percent of the land for open space.

But what might be most enticing is that, with greater density, a developer would need fewer utilities -- streets, water, sewer -- to serve the same amount of homes in a development.

"(A developer) could have 10 percent more houses, be able to develop a smaller area, and build fewer public services," Councilman Marc Nance said.

A builder could save between 30 percent and 40 percent on utilities, yet have the same number of units to sell, Council President R. Delaine Hobbs said.

"If that's not enough, let them go somewhere else," he said.

A developer wishing to use the option would have to submit preliminary plans and a request to the Planning Commission. The commission would make a recommendation to the council, which would make the final decision.

The council appears on the verge of enacting the new and somewhat unusual development measure, in part because members take heart in knowing that a similar program has met with success elsewhere in the state.

In 1987, administrators in Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore enacted a "site performance standard," and the reviews have been favorable.

"It has been working well for us," said Margaret Kaii, deputy director of the Queen Anne's Department of Planning and Zoning.

Queen Anne's has seen increased growth in recent years, Kaii said, as people have come across the Bay Bridge from Baltimore and Washington to settle along the Route 50 corridor and on Kent Island.

"We're a rural county that has experienced a lot of growth in the last few years, and we felt we needed to get a grasp on growth as it occurs," she said.

County planners in Queen Anne's receive 100 to 125 requests for the performance option each year, and more than half are approved, Kaii said.

Typically, developers request to build cluster developments of one unit per five acres on land originally zoned for one home per 20 acres. Eighty-five percent of the land must remain open.

"At first, developers were a little slow to catch on to how it works," she said. "But we've found it reasonable."

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