Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Bethesda church moves one step closer to expansion

Planning Board agrees to turn over portions of two roads

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The Montgomery County Planning Board unanimously supported the abandonment of two sections of road in downtown Bethesda Thursday, clearing another step toward a major church expansion.

The stretches of road, which include portions of an alley off Glenbrook Road and a corner of Rugby Avenue, were requested for abandonment by Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church.

By abandoning the roads, the county forfeits its right to use them and clears the way for development on them.

The 400-member Christ Evangelical church hopes to use the abandoned property as part of its expansion and modernization, which includes the addition of an eight-story residential building on the 1.87-acre lot, located along Old Georgetown Road in the Woodmont Triangle neighborhood of Bethesda.

According to Planning Board documents, nearly 6,000 square feet, or a little more than one-10th of an acre, were proposed for abandonment. Now that the Planning Board has approved the plan it must go before the County Council, which must also approve road abandonments.

David Brown, an attorney representing Concerned Residents of Glenbrook Road, a group of church neighbors protesting the expansion, argued against the abandonment, stating that parts of the roads are used as cut-throughs by residents.

‘‘The land in question enhances the connectivity of the property and the area,” Brown said. ‘‘I know the access is at the discretion of the board, but everyone uses this.”

Part of the neighborhood cut-through, however, is on church property, said Planning Commissioner Gene Lynch.

‘‘Without using private property, there is no right of way,” he said. ‘‘The church let you use their parking lot to walk through. They didn’t have to do that.”

Commissioner John Robinson agreed.

‘‘The church has no obligation to continue this use,” he said.

After approving the abandonment, Lynch said despite the board’s approval, the project still had a long way to go.

‘‘Don’t think just because we approved this we’re going to approve the whole plan,” he said. ‘‘There are a lot of site plan issues on this site.”

At previous Planning Board hearings, neighbors have said they are worried about increased traffic, and the possible unsightliness of an eight-story building on the lot.

The property currently has a chapel, an administrative building, several smaller buildings, and a large parking lot. In addition to the residential building, the church is also planning to build a new, five-story education and community center building.

The church is home not only to religious services, but also a day care center, a homeless lunch program and nine support group programs.

The next step in the process is presenting the project to the county’s hearing examiner. Christ Evangelical’s pastor, the Rev. Marvin Tollefson, said the church has a date set in late February.

‘‘We used the abandonment process to really learn more about the community issues and needs,” he said. ‘‘We’re going to work with the community to make sure they still have safe places to walk, especially since Old Georgetown Road is so busy.”

In early September, the Planning Board approved a rezoning of the property, from single-family residential to mixed residential- allowing the church and the developer, Bozzuto Homes of Greenbelt, to continue with the modernization.