Building halt ends in Chevy Chase

Town clears the way for construction permits after six-month freeze

Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006

Construction crews, start your engines.

The six-month demolition and building moratorium in the Town of Chevy Chase ends this week, meaning homeowners and builders will be free to apply for construction permits — albeit with a few additional hoops to jump through.

On Aug. 11, the Town of Chevy Chase called an official time-out on residential construction, aiming to give residents a breather between rampant residential construction in the ongoing trend of tearing down older houses and replacing them with more modern and often much larger homes. Mayor William H. Hudnut III appointed a 50-person committee of volunteers to tackle the assignment of coming up with recommendations for new legislation pertaining to tree protection, drainage issues and other repercussions neighbors face when construction is going on next door.

While the moratorium officially ends this week, the committee’s chairman, Barry Hager of Willow Lane, said it is still too early to say if the town’s efforts were a success.

‘‘I think the honest answer to that is it’s still in the hands of the council,” Hager said. ‘‘Some things that have been done are improvements.... Other things the council hasn’t taken action on yet.”

Based on recommendations from subcommittees addressing a range of concerns, the council passed a new tree ordinance, introduced a new setbacks ordinance and also plans to introduce legislation addressing drainage and the regulatory review process in the coming weeks.

Hudnut recognized the committee members during the town’s monthly meeting last week.

‘‘A lot of good work has been done,” he said, commending the volunteers for the lengthy hours spent trying to complete the work within a short period of time.

A regulatory review ordinance the council expects to introduce at an upcoming meeting aims to bridge the communication gap that sometimes exists between the current neighbors and the new neighbors who are tearing down and building a new house, Hager said. The committee is recommending a voluntary ‘‘pre-construction meeting” where builders and prospective homeowners discuss their plans with the neighbors.

‘‘All that we’re aiming at is to say both the developer and the neighboring residents would be better served by a process where there was a little more discussion early in the plans for a new house,” Hager said.

The council’s decision to impose the moratorium last summer followed a petition of more than 500 of the town’s 3,000 residents concerned about the increase in construction in recent years driven by a skyrocketing real estate market and the town’s proximity to downtown Bethesda.

‘‘In 2000, tear-downs were $250,000. You tore down a little house, you put up another one and that was sort of the price,” said Bethesda realtor Jane Fairweather. ‘‘Today in Chevy Chase, it’s well over $1 million dollars and sometimes well over $2 million for a piece of land. The neighborhoods that frame the downtown locations are getting more and more valuable.”

Fairweather, who has been critical of the town’s moratorium, believes the tear-down trend may decline this year regardless of the town’s actions over the last six months because of the number of vacant new homes as a result of speculative building.

‘‘I think you’ll see the tear-down trend slow down this year until some of the inventory is absorbed,” she said.

Town Councilman Mier Wolf said it was never the point to stop people from tearing down houses, but to maintain the character of the community.

‘‘The tear down trend was most disturbing not so much for what was torn down, but what was built in its place,” Wolf said. ‘‘We think we’re coming up with ordinances that will yield a more in-scale and in-community look for development for the future. This does not mean that we will have only small houses. But if a house is a large house it will not be egregious in size and scale and have a negative impact on its neighbors.”