Berliner Argues for Inserting Development Pause Buttons Into Bethesda Downtown Plan

County Council president outlined difficulties of controlling high school overcrowding


Council President Roger Berliner

Douglas Tallman

County Council President Roger Berliner will push to include a development “stop button” in the Bethesda Downtown Plan so that growth doesn’t swamp local schools with students.

Focusing growth in Bethesda—near transportation hubs and an urban core—is the right move for the county, Berliner said during a Monday press briefing. But with many of the area’s classrooms already full, welcoming more families to Bethesda will be no easy task, especially if they’re bringing teenage students.

“The elementary school situation is basically doable, and the middle school situation is basically doable. The high school situation is going to be tough,” Berliner said.

Berliner said he’ll advocate for project staging in the downtown plan, which would tie development to the construction of infrastructure improvements. At the same time, the county needs a cohesive plan for school capacity over the coming decades, he argued.

Landing on solutions for growing student enrollment is an important piece of completing the Bethesda Downtown Plan, a document meant to guide development for the next two decades. The proposal under consideration by the council would permit an additional 8.8 million square feet of development beyond the 23.6 million square feet that currently exists in Bethesda.

The challenges of accommodating new students in the Bethesda area were also on the table at Monday’s meeting of the council committee on planning, housing and economic development.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, already at 119 percent of its capacity, sits on the smallest piece of land of any county high school, and there’s not much room for adding more classrooms, Berliner noted.

A project is under way to construct a four-story addition that will increase the school’s capacity to more than 2,400 students, but Berliner argues it would be difficult to expand beyond that.

He suggested the county should buying property surrounding the high school to allow for expansion.

Glenn Orlin, the council’s deputy staff director, said officials could consider a partnership between the Walt Whitman High School cluster, where middle school space is in short supply, and the B-CC cluster. Under that model, the B-CC cluster could use any extra middle school space to serve Whitman students, while the Whitman cluster could help out at the high school level.

During the committee meeting, Berliner expressed concern about the accuracy of the school system’s student enrollment projections and said he looks forward to seeing a master plan.

School board member Patricia O’Neill, who attended the council committee meeting, said education officials are working to reconcile limited resources with growing needs related to new development and the turnover of older neighborhoods.

“We are constantly thinking about the long term,” she said.

The council committee’s next hearing on the downtown plan is set for Monday.

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