Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Planners say ‘neigh’ to horses near Northwest Branch

Property owners with land surrounding section of Willington Drive want parcel for their animals; County Council has final say

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The paved section of Willington Drive in Silver Spring abruptly ends in the 300 block, asphalt giving way to a trail beside a stream among sloping, forested hills. The stream and trail, in Rocky Brook Park, stops when they meet the east side of the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park.

Carey and Marilyn Hoobler own two 1.5-acre lots surrounding the end of Willington, which they thought would be a perfect spot for Diamond and Sky, the family’s horse and pony. All they needed was the county’s permission to take over the end of the road.

‘‘We really did think it would be kind of simple,” Carey Hoobler said.

But the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday unanimously recommended denying the Hooblers’ request to declare the last 150 feet of Willington abandoned, which would have given the Hooblers ownership and enough space for Diamond and Sky. The County Council, by law, will make the final decision.

The recommendation reinforces the county’s strict oversight of land use in environmentally sensitive areas. Planning Board staff said the Hooblers’ request would restrict public access to the Northwest Branch and could affect the Rocky Brook tributary and surrounding forest.

‘‘We’re very protective of these tributaries where we have development around the streams,” Commissioner John Robinson said before the vote.

The Hooblers have owned Diamond for five years and Sky for about four years. The horses are boarded on Ednor Road, Carey Hoobler said, but the family always planned to bring them closer to their home on Warrenton Drive, north of Willington. Previous property owners on Warrenton kept horses, but none in recent years, said Carey Hoobler, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than seven years.

Marilyn Hoobler attempted to obtain a special exception from the Montgomery County Board of Appeals in 2006 that would have permitted the horses on the family’s three acres. But the board told her the lots were not contiguous, separated by the public right of way along Willington, meaning the family did not have enough connected acreage for the horses.

So the Hooblers put the special exception on hold and in August of 2006 requested the county abandon the last 150 feet of Willington, thereby giving them enough connected acreage. In the request and at Thursday’s hearing, Carey Hoobler said his family would build fences around each lot, allow for continued public use of the trail by the stream and agree not to remove any trees from the forest, which they had not planned to do anyway.

In a report, Planning Board staff acknowledged that section of Willington most likely would never be developed, and that the surrounding lots are recorded without any conservation restrictions. But the staff report said an abandonment would ‘‘reduce and complicate” pedestrian access to the Northwest Branch.

And while the Hooblers did not plan any site development, ‘‘the return of this right of way to private control increases the likelihood that small amounts of unregulated, but legal, land disturbance would adversely affect the environmental resources in the stream valley,” the report said.

Barbara Foresti, who has lived on Willington Drive for 40 years, testified against the abandonment because of the precedent it would set.

‘‘I believe each incursion into the public right of way ... risks damaging existing waterways,” she said, adding residents enjoy walking along the trail.

Despite the area’s remote location, keeping the public right of way would ensure no future development, Stephen Federline, supervisor of environmental planning, said in an interview.

‘‘We want to protect not just the stream, but the riparian buffer (stream’s banks) and the wetlands that surround it,” he said.

If the Hooblers’ special exception request came before the Planning Board for review, Federline testified at the hearing, the county would require a conservation buffer on the property that would prohibit building within 250 feet of the stream and preclude use as pasture.

Carey Hoobler said he understands the county’s environmental concerns and is working with county officials to find a solution, perhaps exchanging land.

‘‘I want to make it a win-win,” Hoobler said.

But Hoobler also grew up in the area and remembers driving along New Hampshire Avenue when its surroundings were rural.

‘‘As the county becomes more suburban, the agricultural vestiges are lost,” he said. ‘‘I think there’s a charm to the county that gets lost.”