Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007

Council approves rezoning for Georgia Avenue townhouses

Decision angers residents who wanted land on former College of Art and Design parcel to serve neighborhood

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Wheaton area residents are upset by the County Council’s 8-1 decision Tuesday to approve the rezoning application for a townhouse development in their neighborhood, but say they are going to continue to advocate for park space.

The County Council heard oral arguments from residents of the Carroll Knolls, McKenney Hills and Plyers Mill Crossing communities in Wheaton Tuesday before also hearing from Stacy Silber, attorney for Kaz Development LLC, the Silver Spring-based developer that applied for rezoning of the former College of Art and Design property on Georgia Avenue.

The property currently includes green space, a parking lot and the former college’s building. The property, owned by the Montgomery College Foundation, is under contract to be sold to Kaz when rezoning is complete. The property had been zoned for single-family homes.

Residents had asked for the county to designate the land as part of the county’s Legacy Open Space program to allow the property’s green space to serve as neighborhood parkland. Other local parks, they argued, were farther away and pedestrians were forced to cross major highways to reach them.

The land was nominated for Legacy Open Space in August by Beverly Sobel, a community member heading the effort for the park and against the rezoning.

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring had asked the council to hear oral testimony before making a final decision. However, Ervin voted for the rezoning Tuesday because she said she was compelled to agree with the Montgomery County Planning Board, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission staff and a Montgomery County hearing examiner, all of whom approved the rezoning.

‘‘I am still a little torn about some of the things [the community] said to us that are not in the written record,” she said. ‘‘I’m willing to support the applicant on this one.”

Ervin was referring to the numerous items the residents were not allowed to speak about during their 20 minutes of testimony. Hearing Examiner Martin L. Grossman and Council President Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton interrupted community members numerous times when the residents mentioned studies that were not brought up in the hearing examiner’s report or information that went outside the scope of rezoning.

The only items permitted to be discussed by either side were stormwater management issues, sewage capacity, green space, master plan conformance and traffic.

One of the community’s main concerns was the loss of green space if the property became a townhouse development. But the hearing examiner’s report noted that there are parks nearby, including Evans Parkway Neighborhood Park, located on the east side of Georgia Avenue and directly across the street from the art school.

However, many community members, especially those with children, said Evans Parkway Neighborhood Park was not an option for their community.

Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park agreed, calling crossing Georgia Avenue a ‘‘death trap.”

‘‘No parent in their right mind would send [their] kid across Georgia Avenue,” he said.

Grossman told the County Council, however, that he believed the amount of green space on the property now would be about equivalent to the amount created by Kaz even with 27 new townhouses.

Several members of the County Council also told community members that many of their issues regarding reforestation, traffic and sewage problems would be addressed when developers come before the Planning Board for preliminary and site plan reviews.

Elrich was the only council member to vote against the rezoning, citing that there was no specific recommendation in the Kensington-Wheaton Master Plan for townhouses. However, Praisner and Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said just because something is not specifically stated in the master plan does not mean that it cannot be done.

While residents see the council’s decision as a setback, they say the development can still be stopped because the developer has to abide by covenants recorded years ago that do not allow townhouses in Carroll Knolls. Kaz Development has begun a legal procedure that calls for suing residents in order to overturn the covenants.

Kaz and its attorneys say the covenants are outdated and have already been violated by the art school now in the neighborhood.

Leah Miller, who lives in the Carroll Knolls community, was at the meeting Tuesday wearing green in support of the park space. She is one of the people named in the developer’s lawsuit and plans to fight to make sure a judge does not overturn the covenants. She said many people in her community did not respond to the lawsuit because the whole process has been overwhelming for an average resident to understand.

‘‘People thought their homes were going to be taken away,” she said about the confusion that surrounded the lawsuit.

Despite the community’s difficulty in handling the process, some council members acknowledged that they had done a good job in their efforts.

‘‘I am sympathetic to you if you are not a lawyer ... and I understand why you thought it [was] important to [discuss] things that are not in the record,” said Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac.

Kaz attorney Silber said the County Council’s vote was in line with the decisions already made by the hearing examiner and the Montgomery County Planning Board. She also said the developer would continue to work closely with the community.

However, Sobel said she was disappointed by the County Council’s decision.

‘‘I think as elected officials they basically told the public it was OK to risk their lives to cross Georgia Avenue,” Sobel said. ‘‘We are the ones who had everything to gain and everything to lose. Today, we lost.”