Planning Board Approves Proposal for 309 Homes at WMAL Tower Site

Community members lobbied to save trees, add open space


Published:

Via Montgomery County Planning Department

Concerned county residents crunched numbers, drew charts and even shot rush-hour footage for a hearing on the proposed 309-home development at the WMAL radio tower site in Bethesda.

And although the Montgomery County Planning Board members heard and even commiserated with community members, they unanimously approved the project plan during a Thursday afternoon hearing that stretched well into the evening. During several hours of testimony, residents took issue with numerous aspects of Toll Brothers’ plan for the 75-acre site: Speakers wanted more recreational space, fewer trees felled and more roadway improvements.

“[W]e strongly believe the WMAL plan has crossed the line—that the public interest is not being fairly served,” said George Wolfand, president of the West Fernwood Citizens Association.

Land use attorney Pat Harris, who represented the developer, said the project does fill a gap by providing 150 townhomes and 159 single-family homes on the site just north of the Beltway and east of Greentree Road.

“There is a need for downcounty single-family housing,” she said.

The developer did make a last-minute concession to some of the community input by agreeing to improve an intersection at Fernwood Road and Democracy Boulevard, a juncture that many residents say is already congested. Converting a right-turn lane on Fernwood to a shared left-and-right turn lane should offset the additional traffic the project will contribute, Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson said.

Area resident Brian Krantz submitted video testimony shot at the intersection, arguing the developer’s transportation study for the location was flawed. Among other things, Krantz questioned the vehicle count recorded by the developer’s consultant and argued the study lowballed the number of cars that the National Institutes of Health expansion nearby will add to the roadways in the future.

Anderson said he’d driven to Fernwood and Democracy earlier this week and acknowledged running into heavy evening traffic.

“I could certainly understand if I lived in this neighborhood why I would not be excited about seeing this project developed,” he said before the board’s vote.

At the same time, he disagreed with community members who contended the project would an urban cluster amid an expanse of neighborhoods and said the proposed development would be suburban, albeit somewhat dense. The site is empty except for some WMAL radio towers.

A number of speakers expressed appreciation for the 4.3-acreschool site the developer is donating to the county. John Harris, senior vice president for Toll Brothers, said to his knowledge, it’s the first time a developer has made a voluntary school site dedication with a project application in the  county. However, many said the county should acquire additional land for recreation around the school site.

Although Toll Brothers is planning to provide about 18 acres of open space, more than the law demands, only about 3 acres of that land is usable for recreation, said David Weinstein, president of the Bethesda Place homeowners association.

Weinstein also objected to the developer’s request for a waiver of the forest conservation standard.

“Do we say, ‘You’ve tried your hardest to save the trees. You get an A for effort, and now you get a waiver’?” he asked.

In order to establish road connections and build noise barriers along the Beltway and I-270, Toll Brothers representatives say they can only save about 11 acres of trees, falling about 4 acres short of the county requirement. Planning staff agreed that the forest conservation standards should be relaxed in this case because of the property’s layout, the road design and the placement of the school site.

The board granted the waiver.

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