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Ideas to improve the commercial districts sprouted up at Tuesday’s La Plata Planning Commission meeting.

Commission members discussed how the town’s zoning code, which contains land-use rules and regulations, could allow flexibility for mixed-used buildings in its commercial districts.

Councilman Keith Back, who also serves on the commission, said home offices could be encouraged in mixed-use buildings.

“I also think it gets at the intent of what we’re doing. For example, we don’t want something proposed in the [Central Business Transition district] where 30 cars are in a driveway,” Back said.

The CBT is a transitional district where commercial and residential uses are within walking distance of downtown. Redevelopment is encouraged in the CBT. The zone acts as a buffer between the downtown area and residential areas.

Mixed-use buildings and home offices are permitted in the CBT, but commercial areas in mixed-use buildings are limited to the first floor, according to the zoning code.

David Jenkins, town director of planning and community development, said the town has options in promoting redevelopment but noted trends in reinvestment.

“There is a definite movement for reinvestment in downtown. That is including the big-box folks. Walmart buildings are going up in downtown [Washington] D.C., and the city is saying, ‘All right, but we want these things ... ,’” Jenkins said.

The planning commission has been reviewing the town’s zoning ordinance over the last several months to make the code more user-friendly. Commission members primarily reviewed the zoning code for commercial districts Tuesday.

Members also brainstormed other commercial possibilities, such as establishing square-foot requirements for retail stores, attracting a Trader Joe’s to downtown La Plata and buffering shopping centers with landscaping.

Chairwoman Debra Posey noted that Vice Chairman Richard Gilpin, who was not in attendance, had talked about whether the town should have retail square-footage requirements. She asked members whether such a requirement should be pursued.

The issue is related to the annexation to build a Walmart Supercenter, whose legal proceedings are pending before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals because the town permits big-box stores, usually exceeding 100,000-square-feet, in the town’s commercial highway district, but the county requires a special exception from the county’s Board of Appeals for land zoned community commercial.

Commission member Mary Grant recommended that retail space above a certain square-footage amount be permitted in some places and space below a square-footage amount be in other places.

“That’s a good idea. We want a Safeway in the commercial highway district, but not in the CBT, but we could do a small grocery store in the CBT,” Back said, adding that such restrictions would probably prevent Whole Foods from being in the town’s central business area.

“I’d love Whole Foods there. But there are small versions of Trader Joe’s that fit in downtown areas and are nice. It would be nice in our downtown,” Back said.

Alternate member Jim Breitinger said the town could put siding on commercial buildings in downtown La Plata to give them a small- town appearance.

“In Fredericksburg, there’s a big parking garage, made of all brick. You can’t tell it’s a parking garage. It’s a very good facility that fits with the historical buildings,” Back said.

Back added, though, that the town needs to make sure it differentiates the purposes of the central business district and the CBT.

The former involves the central downtown area with commercial and civic functions, and the latter involves a transitional area where residential and commercial uses are within walking distance of downtown.

“Old Town [Alexandria, Va.] is a good place to walk around to see what we can do,” Back said.

“It is trying to strike a fine line, trying to encourage reinvestment while understanding there’s a certain environmental aspect,” Jenkins said, such as stormwater management on small sites.

Back said shopping centers could have extra landscape buffers to separate commercial and residential areas.

“You see trees, and it’s not stopping people from coming there. There are great areas that do that. And it looks nice,” Back said.

Commission members agreed the code needed some changes to focus on each commercial district’s purpose.

The commission will continue its review until it is ready to send changes to public hearings.

pwarner@somdnews.com