Residents Continue to Oppose Trail Deal Offered by Ourisman
Speakers at public hearing say county needs to protect Capital Crescent Trail against encroachment
Diane Schwartz Jones, left, speaks with community members after the public hearing about the Ourisman deal.
Speakers at a public hearing Tuesday night urged the county not to accept a deal in which Ourisman Honda improves the Capital Crescent Trail near Bethesda Row, but keeps a garage expansion that officials believe encroaches on a trail easement.
The public hearing in Bethesda was the second one this year in which residents have largely opposed Ourisman’s plans to expand the trail near the dealership, build a new public plaza next to Bethesda Avenue, add landscaping to the area and add screening walls to the garage’s facades that face the trail.
Ourisman offered the improvements to keep a three-story steel and concrete garage expansion, the columns of which were built about 10 feet into a trail access easement that the county and the dealership share.
In November, the county’s Department of Permitting Services (DPS) ordered the dealership to stop working on the garage, which is mostly built, after discovering the encroachment.
Since then, DPS Director Diane Schwartz Jones and other county officials have said the trail improvements, which she valued at $1.3 million Tuesday night, would benefit the community more than a potential years-long legal battle with Ourisman to determine through land records what rights each party has to the easement.
Robert Brewer, a land use attorney for Ourisman, attended the hearing Tuesday, but did not speak. At the May meeting, Chris Ourisman, the son of company president John Ourisman, said the company is trying to create “something Bethesda can be proud of.” He also said the dealership would have first proposed the trail improvements along with the expansion if they could have redone the process.
Plans for trail improvements offered by Ourisman as part of the deal (click to expand)
“I believe what they built should be torn down,” Peter Kokopeli, one of 11 speakers during Tuesday’s hearing, said. “It’s the owner’s responsibility to know where property lines and easements were. … If I got it wrong on my property, it would be my responsibility to fix that.”
Kate Stern, a vice president of the Huntington Terrace Citizens Association, said county officials need to protect the valuable bicycle infrastructure in the county, especially as officials work to improve the bike network.
Bethesda resident Amanda Farber, who speaks on many issues related to Bethesda, said Ourisman should improve the trail head near Bethesda Avenue and make the garage look better on its own, not as a way to keep the garage.
“This proposal represents the minimum that should have been done in the first place at this location,” Farber said.
The garage structure next to the trail on Wednesday afternoon. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Scott Bonney, an architect who said he lives at the Flats at Bethesda Avenue apartment building, faulted both Ourisman and the county for allowing the garage expansion to be constructed in the easement. He said the dispute shouldn’t be taken to court and recommended the two sides figure out the best solution.
He asked whether Ourisman could move the columns 10 feet in, off the easement, and make other improvements to make the garage less noisy and more attractive.
Two residents of the nearby Sacks neighborhood said the county should require Ourisman to contractually agree to reduce noise and light pollution coming from the dealership that they said hurts their quality of life.
After the hearing, Schwartz Jones gathered with a group of about a dozen attendees to explain why she thought the deal was beneficial for the county.
She pointed out that Ourisman was giving up a sizable chunk of its property to build the approximately 2,000-square-foot public plaza and plans to reroute its driveway to make it safer for trail users. She noted the dealership has also offered to relinquish any claims it may have to the trail right-of-way. And she added that the company is working with a respected landscape architect, Trini Rodriguez, to improve the trail and surrounding landscaping.
Schwartz Jones maintained that even if the county took the dispute to court, she’s not sure the county would prevail, given murky land records associated with the easement. She said taking it to court would also likely mean the improvements proposed by Ourisman would not be built.
The next step for the deal is for County Executive Ike Leggett to make recommendations, then send it to the County Council for possible approval. Schwartz Jones said Tuesday she didn’t know whether the council would approve it.
She said the council will not have access to final design plans for the improvements because Ourisman is weary of spending more money on its initial plans before the company knows whether they’ll be approved.
A rendering showing the plaza next to where the trail intersects with Bethesda Avenue.
Mesh screening proposed by Ourisman at the May meeting to make the garage more visually appealing.