Bethesda Community Store to expand
Addition will double size of shop on Old Georgetown Road
After lengthy battles with the county and residents, the Bethesda Community Store appears ready to build on its 85-year history.
The historic store's owner, Arnie Fainman, said he is moving forward with plans to double the store's 352 square feet of space on Old Georgetown Road, near the National Institutes of Health and Suburban Hospital, after a recent legal victory in Circuit Court.
Fainman said the addition to the store, which must be approved by the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission before it goes through the county permitting process, will probably include a farmers market that will provide fresh produce to customers.
Currently, customers at the Bethesda Community Store can buy eggs and other breakfast foods, sandwiches, snack foods and beverages. The store has operated since 1924 and is one of the few surviving commercial structures from the early 20th century in Bethesda, according to the Historic Preservation Commission, although it is located on property zoned for residential use. The property itself is owned by Gary Jaffe of Greentree Development. Fainman owns the store, but Gary Jaffe of Greentree Development owns the property where the store sits.
Fainman has been fighting to increase his business on the property since 2001. His efforts have focused on the rights of the Salt River Lobster company to sell seafood on the store's property, as well as his ability to use a storage shed that he planned eventually to turn into the permanent building expansion. Salt River Lobster began selling seafood on the store's property in 2001 after previously operating at an NIH parking lot. The company left NIH property due to new security restrictions following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Fainman claimed the expansion is necessary if his store is to survive. He said extra security measures that were implemented at NIH after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks have it more difficult for workers there to cross Old Georgetown Road and come to his store. He also said the recent drop-off in construction, thanks to the lagging economy, has hurt his customer base, which includes blue-collar workers and school children.
"I want to provide as much as a service to the community as I possibly can," Fainman said. "I want to be a positive factor in the community."
But Bob Deans, a member of the Huntington Terrace Citizens Association, which represents residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the store, said Fainman's attempt to expand represents an unwanted commercialization of the Old Georgetown Road corridor.
"The fundamental question has been, `Can we support a change that could open the door to a commercial designation for that property?' " Deans said. "The answer has come back in three unanimous votes — no, we aren't able to do that."
In fall 2001, a Montgomery County zoning inspector issued citations to Fainman and Salt River Lobster, saying the shed was a non-conforming use and that a seafood business was not covered under the store's license. But Fainman and Salt River Lobster argued the shed and the seafood sales were not governed by traditional ordinances regarding commercial properties.
In a February 2005 decision, the Board of Appeals voted to uphold the citations regarding the shed and Salt River Lobster, arguing that the shed and the seafood vendor were outside the limitations provided by the historic zoning designation and the current residential zoning.
Fainman appealed the vote to Montgomery County Circuit Court. In February this year, Judge Michael D. Mason ruled in favor of the store and the seafood vendor.
Citing a County Council resolution that designated the store as historic and provisions in the county code that call for the preservation of historic buildings, Mason ruled the store should "be preserved and that its economic viability be protected to enable to continue in operation as a store.'"
On April 24, the Board of Appeals issued a revised opinion reflecting Mason's ruling. According to court records, Huntington Terrace was not a party to the case at the Circuit Court level.
Deans said Huntington Terrace has challenged the store's expansion proposal with the Historic Preservation Commission in the past. But he would not say if the community was planning to do that again because there has been insufficient input from residents on the subject.
He argued that Fainman's current plan amounts to a "backdoor rezoning" of the property that would make it far more valuable and desirable for a larger and more intrusive commercial use.
In an interview, Fainman vigorously denied that he was attempting to further commercialize the property or sell the store for a profit. He argued the Historic Preservation Commission would not permit a significantly larger commercial enterprise on the property.
Fainmain's attorney, Steven Orens, said his client's pending attempt to rezone the property to commercial use would have been an act of "desperation," and that Fainman will not seek a zoning change now that Mason has ruled in his favor.
"My intentions all along (have been) to keep my stake in the store and to keep the store running," Fainman said.