Westbard Self-Storage Plans Rile Some in Bethesda

Environmental group says proposal doesn’t do enough to improve health of Willett Branch


Published:

Rendering of proposed Westbard self-storage facility on River Road in Bethesda

VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PLANNING BOARD

Updated at 11:03 a.m. Friday to correct the address of the proposed self-storage facility.

Local environmental and community groups are objecting to a proposal for a self-storage facility in the Westbard neighborhood of Bethesda.

The plans for a 195,527-square-foot facility have attracted attention, in part, because the site at 5204 River Road stands along the stream valley buffer for the Willett Branch. Water quality advocates and some local residents say aspects of the building plan don’t advance the goal of restoring the stream, and they’re calling on the developer to make adjustments.

Representatives of the developer, Bethesda Self Storage Partners LLC, have noted that their facility would be completely outside the stream buffer area and that they are offering to give the parks system roughly .39 acres covered in grass and trees. This dedication would form the first section of the Willett Branch greenway, a continuous corridor of natural space that officials and advocates hope will one day border the stream.

But the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, an environmental group based in Chevy Chase, says the existing plans will not do enough to revitalize the stream.

“The Westbard Self Storage facility will be adjacent to the heart of the new Willett Branch Park. How the stormwater is managed, how the buffer is treated, how the landscaping is done, and how the park is accessed will all have a huge impact on the success of the new park and restoration of the Willett Branch,” Sarah Morse, the alliance’s executive director, wrote last month to the county’s planning staff.

The Montgomery County Planning Board is scheduled on Dec. 14 to review the self-storage facility project. The planning staff has recommended approval of the preliminary and site plans for Westbard Self Storage, with certain conditions.

Patricia Kolesar of the group Save Westbard said she isn’t fundamentally opposed to the project and recognizes that the proposal likely meets county requirements. However, she’s hoping the applicant will voluntarily change the development plan.

“Please know that even if the Westbard Self-Storage plans meet all necessary county requirements and regulations (we presume that they do), the residents’ collective opinion of your project will not change—and we have no power in this situation other than to refuse to patronize Westbard Self-Storage,” she wrote in an email to planning staff and the developer.

Critics of the self-storage proposal have recently launched an online petition asking for plan changes. The petition had gathered more than 40 signatures by Thursday afternoon.

In the alliance’s letter, the group argued that the facility site design would not allow enough rainwater to filter into the ground, an important part of improving water quality in the area.

The alliance also wrote that the proposed building, which has four levels below ground and five above, would be too large for the site. Because the cellar goes so far underground, the alliance called on the developer to reduce the building footprint to create more open space and permit a wider path into the park from River Road.

The environmental group also asked the applicant to make sure the building façade facing the park blends into the natural environment by, for instance, adding a plant-covered wall.

Timothy Dugan, an attorney representing the developer, wrote that the self-storage plan includes a green roof and planter boxes and “fully addresses” the county’s environmental design requirements.

The building “meets or exceeds the applicable development standards,” he wrote, and the developer has already redesigned the wall façade facing the park in light of community feedback. The current idea is to let the parks system set up art along a large area of the building’s pathway-facing side.

A planning staff report states that the developer reworked the self-storage plan so it would stand entirely outside the stream buffer. Bethesda Self Storage Partners also has cooperated with the planners in adjusting the building and environmental site designs, according to the staff report.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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