Chevy Chase Residents Simmering Over Apartment Heights, Planning Process
Just west of Connecticut Avenue, tucked in along a golf course and the Capital Crescent Trail, is a neighborhood of single family homes and an aging apartment complex called Newdale Mews that is perhaps the most controversial issue in the plan to redevelop Chevy Chase Lake. As the County Council prepares for a March 5 public hearing on the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, a set of zoning changes in which the Planning Board approved a 45-foot height for Newdale Mews apartments before the Purple Line light rail is built and a 55-foot height if it is built, the residents of the Chevy Chase Hills neighborhood say they have been railroaded by a planning process they feel was too heavily weighted in the favor of developers. Neighbors, especially those whose homes on Lynwood Place back up to Newdale Mews, say the county shouldn't allow the apartments (currently 35 feet) to be built to 45 feet if the above ground Purple Line is never built just south of the property. The Planning Board differed with the recommendation of Planning Department Staff. Staff said a height increase shouldn't be allowed until the Purple Line (which could compromise the three-story apartments) was built. "There have been times when you think, 'I don't know if this process is totally fair,'" neighbor Bill Buchanan said. "We've talked about just saying, 'Look, forget it.' People assume we're all NIMBYs, which is crazy. This is not a never-build thing, this is a build sensibly thing." Rob Bindeman, owner of the apartments, says the desire to rebuild the apartments is fueled solely by structural problems, including a failing floor joist in one of the buildings. He also said the fear that the taller apartments would loom over backyards and homes is not justified. The homes on Lynwood Place sit on a hill above Newdale Mews. The third-story window on one of the apartments sits about even with the second-floor balcony of the Buchanan home, which Bill and Julie Buchanan moved into in 2008. Twenty more feet of height would put apartment units clearly above the homes, mean the loss of trees, and, neighbors argue, significantly compromise the street of 60-plus-year-old homes in the neighborhood. Bindeman said the new apartments would be built twice as far back from the homes as they are today, which is twice what Montgomery County requires. That, Bindeman said, would allow for a greater area to plant greenery and trees. He said there is a standing offer from his company, Bethesda-based Landmark Realty, to plant trees on the neighbors' side of the property line. "In July 2008, one of our building’s floor joists failed, which resulted in the building being condemned by Montgomery County. Our other four buildings are subject to regular engineer inspections, preventive maintenance efforts, and further repair when needed. But this is not a long term solution. We need to rebuild," Bindeman wrote in an email to BethesdaNow.com. "The need to rebuild Newdale Mews is 100% driven by the 60+ year age of the buildings. The Chevy Chase Sector plan presents the right opportunity for the property to be rezoned, as our current outdated zoning doesn’t allow us to rebuild. The Planning Board supported redevelopment for Newdale before or after Purple Line funding, recognizing that whether there is a Purple Line or not, 60+ year old buildings — especially these buildings — need rezoning now." Planning Department Staff recommended only the 45-foot rezoning after the creation of the Purple Line, with the belief that "Compatibility with the adjacent single-family homes is the primary criterion for the proposed zoning." The Planning Board, in a 3-2 vote that split with Staff's recommendations, decided to allow 45-foot zoning before creation of the Purple Line and 55-foot zoning after it. Neighbors, one who even solicited a friend at an architecture firm to create renderings of what the apartments might look like from his backyard, were stunned at the turnaround. Bill Buchanan said lobbying from Bindeman and his attorney might have given some on the Board the false impression that neighbors were amenable to the 45-foot height regardless of the status of the Purple Line, though he said the neighbors' original compromise with Bindeman was for 45 feet only if the Purple Line was built. "We feel that we have bent over backwards to be good neighbors. It's funny in these things because you get the NIMBYs out there and we feel we're nothing like that. We've set up meetings for him. We've talked with him," Buchanan said. "We've given him concessions and it sort of seems like he's doing this end-run on the timing thing and we're like, 'Enough's enough. We had an understanding of sorts, and you're taking part in it and then running with the other parts.'" Bindeman said he is happy to meet with the neighbors at any time. He's also working on a letter to the community in an attempt to show the higher apartments would not be as compromising as feared. Two of the three new buildings would be 50 feet away from the homes, Bindeman said. Meanwhile, the Buchanans are working hard to lobby the Council against the height increase. The Council will have final say on the fate of Newdale Mews. Julie Buchanan is the President of the neighborhood association. She'll testify before the Council on March 5. Bill Buchanan will also testify and talk more specifically about the effect the taller apartments could have on the family and their six-year-old daughter. The Buchanans have hosted four of the nine council members or staff representatives in their home. Many residents showed up at a town hall with Bethesda Councilman Roger Berliner (D) last month to make their case against the pre-Purple Line height increase. Bill Buchanan said a few of the members have been surprised at how close the existing apartments are to the homes. Julie Buchanan said she wished she knew more about the process before it reached this point. "We're sort of learning as we go. So we didn't meet with Planning Board members ahead of time. We sent letters, we sent emails, but we didn't know you could go in there and sort of lobby," Julie Buchanan said. "It's one of those things where you have to go through it once to know." CLARIFICATION: This story originally included a quote from a neighbor opposed to taller heights at Newdale Mews that indicated the owner of the apartment did not show up at a scheduled meeting with nearby residents. That quote has been removed to reflect the fact that meeting was cancelled.