Wednesday, May 7, 2008

County Council members disagree on land use in Bethesda neighborhood

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More than half of the households in Bethesda’s Hillmead community would rather a county-owned house in their neighborhood be demolished and used as parkland than have it used for special needs housing, according to a resident petition.

The petition, which surveyed residents of 154 homes on April 27, supports a resolution presented last week by County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac to demolish the house.

An opposing resolution presented last week by County Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park aims to rehabilitate the house and use it for special-needs housing.

The resolutions address whether to approve funds to demolish the house, which sits on county-owned parkland purchased in October, as an addition to Hillmead Neighborhood Park. Berliner wants the entire plot to be used as an addition to the park, while Leventhal would have part of the site added to the park.

The County Council is slated to vote on the two measures June 10.

In a petition forwarded to Berliner’s office, 205 signatures were collected from 139 homes in favor of tearing down the house. Hillmead resident Adriane Johns started the petition, which visited 268 homes. Fifteen households did not sign the petition. The door was not answered at the remaining homes.

The question of the plot’s future has been an issue in the Hillmead community, off Bradley Boulevard, for more than six months. Residents assumed the land, purchased for $2.5 million, would be used only as an addition to the neighboring park. But when the County Council approved the purchase, it didn’t include funds for demolishing the house, saying the house could be used for special needs housing.

Special needs housing can serve the homeless, people with mental health, substance abuse, or developmental issues, as well as seniors or youth.

‘‘I cannot in good conscience vote to demolish the house when there are so many families in Montgomery County in need of housing,” Leventhal said.

However, residents say the debate is being framed incorrectly. Alana Dzurek, president of the Hillmead Citizens Association, said it isn’t that the neighborhood doesn’t want special needs housing, it’s that the community wasn’t involved in the process from day one.

‘‘I want people to understand this doesn’t have anything to do with the needy or homeless,” she said. ‘‘This is about getting a process.”

Dzurek is in favor of demolishing the house.

Hillmead residents received a letter from Berliner in recent weeks outlining his position, and why he introduced his resolution.

‘‘Given the topography of the land and the location of the home, any meaningful park expansion would be prohibited if the house were to remain standing,” he said in the letter. ‘‘On that basis alone, I believe that use of the existing structure for any purpose would be inconsistent with the fundamental predicate of the County’s purchase of this property.”

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission agrees. In a letter submitted by Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, the commission states that the land should serve strictly as a park, as was originally intended.

The letter states that on Jan. 31, Parks Department Director Mary Bradford asked Department of Housing and Community Affairs Director Rick Nelson to submit a written proposal to use the property for special needs housing.

An extension was granted, and the letter states that on April 11 the proposal was received.

‘‘As a consequence of having provided a cost estimate of necessary repairs, but absent a specific proposal from any [e]xecutive agency to lease the property or to repay [the Advance Land Acquisition Revolving Fund] for its transfer, it appears that no agency is ready, willing and able to accept the Hillmead house for a non-park use,” Hanson wrote. ‘‘We, therefore, renew our original proposal for the use of the property as a park.”

Dzurek said it would be awkward using park space around the house if it remained, saying it would be impossible to define where the parkland ends and the home’s property begins.

Leventhal, though, defended his position.

‘‘There would still be more than an acre added to the park,” he said. ‘‘...If you were designing it from scratch, you wouldn’t put the house where it is on the site, but we have to live with that.”