MCPS And Planners Sparring Over Design Of New Bethesda-Chevy Chase School
Things have gotten testy between planners and MCPS officials who disagree about how to best protect trees at the site of a planned middle school in Kensington. The middle school, which MCPS says it badly needs to ease overcrowding in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster, has been at the center of controversy and litigation since at least 2010. A discussion at the March 26 Planning Board hearing also illustrated the apparent rift between planners and school officials when it comes to designing new schools on smaller-than-preferred school sites. At the hearing, MCPS Facilities Management director James Song and construction direction Craig Shuman argued that an alternate design for the school pushed by Planning Department staff to save more trees actually would result in more tree loss, more retaining walls, more impervious surfaces and the loss of four or five parking spaces. While the Planning Board can issue only an advisory opinion on the overall school design, it does hold legal authority over the project's forest conservation plan. Planners made clear that they would deny the original forest conservation plan submitted by MCPS. MCPS officials said that decision would delay the construction of sorely needed school space. Planning Department Director Gwen Wright claimed MCPS staff had contacted PTA representatives in the days before the hearing "and told them that Park and Planning is trying to delay the project and that they should speak up." "That's a very disappointing outcome to what started as a collaborative effort to solve a difficult problem to try to achieve a plan that would meet the law," Wright said. Song said the approaches suggested by planners since they started talking almost a year ago just wouldn't work. Both sides had different ideas of the impact various designs would have. "I wish this was able to be solved last May, but I think we have demonstrated that we have been working collaboratively over the last 10 months," Song said before Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson interrupted. "You seem to be saying we were working collaboratively, but the problem is that we have what amounts to law enforcement authority over the forest conservation statute," Anderson said. "I understand you have a disagreement with our staff but I don't understand why you're here at the eleventh hour saying [the Planning Board is] going to cause a major delay if [it] insists on a position which was advanced by our staff for the first time nine months ago." "Our proposed plan saves more trees than the plan your staff has asked us to consider," Song said. "I came here with an open mind. If that proposed plan was a better plan, we'd agree with it." The Planning Board ultimately voted to approve the MCPS design with the condition that the two sides work out the tree conservation issues. Planners would prefer a design that moves the entrance drive to the yet-to-be-named school. The four-story school, set for the former Rock Creek Hills Local Park in Kensington, will help ease overcrowding in Westland Middle School, the only current middle school in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster. The existing curb cuts at the site (3701 Saul Road) are more than 30 feet below the proposed school building entrance. That means MCPS would have to remove 31 trees and impact two others, mostly because of a retaining wall needed to support the drop-off loop along the steep hill. Planners suggested moving the entrance to the site further up Saul Road at a higher elevation, meaning less grading and fewer trees lost to construction. But Shuman said the design advocated by planners would mean 3.5 percent more impervious surface and a longer trip to the school's entrance for those who park in disabled parking spaces. The Planning Board reluctantly transferred the site back to the Board of Education in July 2013. The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) acquired the site from the Board of Education in 1990. At that time, the school system didn't need the land. But with increasing capacity issues and the planned reassignment of Grade 6 students from Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase Elementary Schools, the school system said it needed the site back for a new middle school. That sparked a lawsuit from neighbors, who hoped to block the school and maintain the park. At the March 26 hearing, Shuman said fitting the school on the hilly 13-acre site is like "fitting ten pounds of sugar in a five-pound sack." MCPS looks for a minimum of 15.5 acres for middle school sites, and that's on ideally flat and level land. "This agency, while our staff did not like the site selection, did not want to turn the park over to the school system, the Board did not support any effort to try to alter that decision. We respected the fact that it was MCPS' property," Anderson said during the hearing. "We played no role in encouraging or helping any litigation to stop it. When that decision was made, we were completely 100 percent cooperative. For that matter, we have worked very hard to try to get this done as expeditiously as possible." The boundary study for the new middle school is scheduled to start in spring 2016 with Board of Education action in November 2016. The scheduled completion date for the new school is August 2017, pending adequate construction funding.