Bethesda Neighborhood Group Says Sector Plan Process ‘Makes a Mockery’ of Planning Board

The Edgemoor Citizens Association is unhappy that individual Bethesda property owners have been allowed to negotiate for more height, density in front of county’s Planning Board


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Concept sketch of a mid-rise residential building along Arlington Road near the corner of Moorland Lane

VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT/ZOM MID-ATLANTIC

A major civic association neighboring downtown Bethesda is unhappy that property owners have been allowed to negotiate for more height and density in Planning Board work sessions on the Bethesda Downtown Plan.

The Edgemoor Citizens Association, which represents about 500 single-family homes to the west of downtown Bethesda, delivered a scathing letter to the Planning Board on Monday in which it claims the process “makes a mockery of the Board’s oversight role.”

Over six work sessions, the Planning Board has allowed property owners and attorneys for property owners to make arguments why their properties should be given more height, more density or more of both than what was initially recommended by Planning Department staff.

Planners hoped to allow 20 percent growth in downtown Bethesda over the life of the 20- to 25-year master plan. But through the first five Planning Board work sessions, the board had already added a net total of 1.4 million square feet of potential new development to the plan. That figure doesn’t include additional density and height the board recommended during the sixth work session Jan. 7 and additional density it could allow during the seventh work session next week.

According to the letter from Edgemoor Citizens Association President Judy Gilbert Levey, the Planning Board has reviewed and acted on requests from 80 downtown Bethesda property owners through the first six work sessions.

Levey wrote that the Planning Board has allowed density and height above what was initially recommended by planners in 59 cases, a rate of about 74 percent.

“The discussions with property owners usually sound more like negotiations for middle ground than they do critical evaluations of the legitimacy and advisability of the requests,” Levey wrote.

Dozens of downtown Bethesda property owners have expressed the desire for more density or height than what county planning staff initially recommended last summer. During the work sessions, attorneys for the property owners have pointed to adjacent properties that have higher allowable building heights and more density, asking why the properties they represent should be left with less.

A typical conversation between board members and property owners happened during the Jan. 7 work session and involved a group of properties along Arlington Road, facing Bethesda Elementary School and the Edgemoor neighborhood.

ZOM Mid-Atlantic, a developer planning a mid-rise apartment or condominium building on the site, requested additional density, a 75-foot maximum height on most of the site and a 60-foot maximum height on the piece of the site along Arlington Road.

Despite a recommendation from Planning Department staff not to increase density to the developer’s desired figures, Planning Board commissioners voted 3-2 to tentatively bump up the height and density numbers to what ZOM Mid-Atlantic requested.

Another example of how the process works came during the board’s Dec. 15 work session.

The Jaffe Group, the developer planning an apartment building next St. John’s Norwood Church, asked for and received unanimous support from Planning Board commissioners for a building that slopes from 145 feet tall on Wisconsin Avenue to 50 feet tall on the residential road to the east.

Planning Department staff had initially recommended a maximum building height of 120 feet on Wisconsin Avenue and a maximum building height between 35 and 70 feet on the street that divides the site from the Town of Chevy Chase.

Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson addressed the growing amount of density and height in the plan at the start of the Jan. 7 work session, saying the board is likely going to have to reduce the amount of additional density and height it has agreed to during the work sessions.

But Levey wrote that she doesn’t believe the Planning Board will actually revoke the agreements on density and height it has already made in the work sessions.

“If and when this future day of reconciliation arrives, how will the Board find the courage needed to take back most or all [of] the additional density it has already agreed to in order to restore balance to the Plan?,” Levey wrote.

The Planning Board will hold its seventh work session at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The controversial plans for the Bethesda Fire Station 6 are expected to be discussed with the property’s owner, the Bethesda Fire Department.

The Planning Board is scheduled to hold at least two more work sessions on the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan after next week. When the plan is finished, it will head to the County Council for final approval.

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