The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday supported a sewer pipe extension to the Glenstone Museum, which holds the celebrated private art collection of Potomac billionaire Mitchell Rales. The council will formally vote on the request July 24 when it takes action on changes to the Comprehensive Water Supply and Sewerage Systems Plan.
Rales, who also lives on the estate, is seeking a 3,000-foot sewer pipe to serve the existing museum and expand into a new, larger museum building.
The sewer pipe, which would be longer than any previously approved under an exception for churches, schools or museums, also known as private institutional facilities, would run under the Greenbriar Branch Stream.
Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Silver Spring, and Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park expressed strong support for the sewer project in a work session of the council’s Transportation and Environment Committee on July 12.
The council must balance the county’s private institutional facility or PIF policy — which provides a means for considering sewer service for those uses in areas not generally intended for public water and/or sewer — with environmental concerns, community impacts and land use goals, according to council staff.
The Potomac Master Plan, which was adopted in 2002, does not permit a sewer pipe hook-up to the Glenstone Estate. Rales is seeking a Private Institutional Facility waiver.
The Montgomery County Planning Board had recommended denying the Glenstone request because sewer service on the property generally is banned to protect against development in the rural area.
Riemer said Tuesday that Rales’ request has been characterized as though it would be an exception to county rules or a bending of the rules.
“I strongly believe this is approved according to the rules,” he said.
It also has been suggested that the council supports the measure because of Rales' wealth, Berliner said Tuesday.
Rales, a Bethesda native and co-founder of the Danaher Corp. manufacturing company, is worth $3.7 billion, according to Forbes’ 2012 list of wealthiest Americans.
His brother, Josh Rales, was listed as a co-host of a recent fundraiser for Berliner, according to a July 10 report in The Washington Post.
“I, for one, have been offended by the suggestion that this council is kowtowing to the desires of a billionaire,” he said. “That is not what this council is doing.”
Under the PIF policy, the county reviews requests for sewer in large-lot zones on a case by case basis, Senior Legislative Analyst Keith Levchenko said.
“I would suggest if we didn’t approve this we shouldn’t have a PIF policy, because if not here, where?” Berliner said.
“These people have been criticized for being billionaires. They are sparing no expense here,” Berliner said during the work session. “I do find it hard to ignore what I perceive to be the applicant’s absolute commitment to the environment in this debate.”
Crossing the Greenbriar Branch Stream is a major environmental concern surrounding Rales' request, Councilman Marc B. Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park said, and asked that it be done in a way so if it needs repairs, it is outside the stream envelope.
The Glenstone Foundation has offered to use a directional boring system to install the pipe so that environmentally sensitive areas aren’t harmed.
“There is still the danger of having a break in the line and having it go directly into the stream,” Planning Department staff member Mary Dolan testified at committee meeting.
Planning department staff recommended Rales build a septic system to serve the planned museum expansion.
Riemer argued during the committee meeting that the sewer pipe extension would be a less harmful environmental option than a new septic system, which the Glenstone Foundation has argued would have to be replaced every 25 to 50 years and would disrupt operation of the museum.
“Approving this would not lead to additional development,” Riemer said. “It would be a net improvement for existing environmental protections in the area. It would be a tremendous community resource for the whole county. I think it’s a slam dunk.”
On Tuesday, Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park emphasized that septic is not required by the county because it is an environmentally preferred option.
Rather, it is a land use tool to limit development in areas of the county, and in the Glenstone case, there will be dozens and dozens of homes that will never be built on Rales' 127.7-acre site because the Glenstone Foundation has designated the land in perpetuity for use as a museum.
The existing 22,000-square-foot museum contains Rales’ extensive private collection of post-World War II paintings and sculptures from such artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Ellsworth Kelly. An appointment is required to visit.
The Glenstone Foundation plans to open the new museum building five days per week, free of charge.
“I don’t think anyone thinks this isn’t an exceptional facility,” Caroline Taylor of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, which opposes the extension on environmental grounds, said in an interview. “But the council should be bound by law and public policy.”