Guest House Project Causes Uproar in Bethesda Neighborhood
The quiet, upscale Battery Park neighborhood just off downtown Bethesda has become the site of an argument between property owners that some say has broader ramifications for the way residential land is zoned in the county. Rina Levy, who rents out the house on the 5000 block of Del Ray Avenue, wants to build a two-level guest house with a garage in the backyard to visit when she comes from her home in Israel. The Department of Permitting Services approved her request under the Guest House provision, sending neighbors into an uproar. "This is just a big loophole for accessory apartments," said Ryan Wallach, an attorney who lives directly behind the guest house location. "It's pretty common sense that you shouldn't be able to build a guest house for your own personal use when you come visit if you're renting out the property." Wallach and a number of other neighbors testified in front of the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday in support of a zoning law proposed by Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park that would effectively disallow Levy's permit. Zoning Text Amendment 12-15 would require the owner of the property to reside at the primary dwelling in order for a guest house to go up. The case is due before the county Board of Appeals on Dec. 19. Neighbors say residential property owners should not be allowed to build two essentially separate homes on the same property, especially if they intend to rent out the primary home. They are also worried more than one family will live on the property. Levy says the home is rented out to the family of a Finnish journalist, and has been since 2010. "First and foremost, it's an improvement to her property. It's not just a guest house, it's a single-car garage serving her entire property where currently there is no covered garage," said Soo Lee-Cho, the attorney representing Levy. "It's all part of one rental. This is not two families living on one property. We're not talking about a property owner who is neglectful of a property or disrespectful to her neighbors." The back-and-forth began in part in June, when Levy says she got an email from neighbor Beth Rosner, who also testified at the public hearing on Tuesday. Levy says Rosner emailed her and complained that when she asked a contractor on site if Levy had permits, the contractor replied that no permits were necessary. Levy replied that she was well aware of the permits necessary and had consulted with DPS officials since the spring. Levy also said the contractor claimed to have never made that statement to Rosner. Upon visiting Bethesda a few days later, Levy says she invited Rosner and the two other neighbors who appealed the construction before the Board of Appeals to a meeting with her architect. Levy says under the lease agreement, her tenants would have control over the entire property, including the guest house. "It's really not clear what her intent is and it has evolved as the case has gone on," Wallach said. "A couple of us have different theories." Wallach thinks Levy is building the guest house for her son, a student at an area university, or that she intends to rent it out to a second family under the table. The County Planning Board took up the issue at its meeting on Oct. 25 and unanimously decided to table it and include it in its more comprehensive zoning ordinance rewrite project. But Wallach says it's an issue that could affect other neighborhoods. Wallach and his brother, also an attorney, have helped with legal advice and fees during much of the process. But he estimated the neighbors have spent between $10,000 and $15,000 on the appeal, a number he says could balloon to $40,000 depending on how a hearing before the Board of Appeals plays out. "What I find somewhat perverse about the whole thing, the other side that's opposing us is the Department of Permitting Services," Wallach said. "They're representing a non-resident. The notion that DPS is out there defending her; It would be one thing if we had a meritless complaint and were just angry neighbors that hate everything that comes into the neighborhood." The Council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, which Floreen chairs, is set to discuss the issue on Monday, Nov. 26.