Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Webb Tract neighbors sound off on relocation idea

County plan to move two major operations near Airpark rubs Montgomery Village residents wrong way

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Traffic. Noise. A column of smoke spewing from the fire department’s ‘‘burn building.” Neighbors to the Webb Tract painted a bleak picture last week in reaction to a county plan to build a new police and fire rescue training campus and schools food warehouse on the long-disputed property along Snouffer School Road.

For two-and-a-half hours May 7, more than 40 residents from Montgomery Village and the Hunters Woods and Flower Hill neighborhoods blasted the latest twist to the county’s plan to upgrade and consolidate county agencies at properties in Shady Grove, Gaithersburg and the Webb Tract.

Under the initial version, the Webb Tract was mentioned as an alternative site for a Ride On bus depot and a fleet maintenance facility. But after residents of the Kentlands and Lakelands rallied to oppose the Public Safety Training Academy and food warehouse, county officials shifted those functions to a 29-acre section of the 130-acre Webb Tract.

Last week, Webb Tract neighbors questioned top county officials who have been presenting the plan to groups and elected officials.

‘‘I can’t think of anything that’s less desirable for that tract,” said East Village resident Bob Anderson. ‘‘This has been a knife in our back for the last 15 years. A lot of us see it as an unbelievable project for this piece of land. ... We hope you take this message back: By God, this might not be the right project.”

Residents fumed over the configuration of putting two vehicle training tracks and a ‘‘burn building” within a few hundred feet of homes — despite assurances that the plan was only a ‘‘first blush.”

The relocation allows plans to convert areas around the Shady Grove Metro station into a mixed-use ‘‘urban village.” Relocating the Public Safety Training Academy on Great Seneca Highway makes room for Johns Hopkins University to create a 500-acre biotech and applied research campus, explained Diane Schwartz Jones, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer.

‘‘We are not looking to pit one community against another... But we have facilities and they need to go somewhere,” she said.

One of the main concerns was the vehicles that will be funneled through residential streets such as Snouffer School, Centerway and Goshen roads.

Al Roshdieh, deputy director of the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, stressed that the Webb Tract owner’s approved plans would build nine separate buildings on the 29-acre area, whereas the county’s plan calls for only two.

‘‘I guarantee you: When I do this traffic study, the result will be much less that what the nine buildings will generate,” he said.

The MCPS food warehouse is more a distribution facility than a processing center, Schwartz Jones said. The only things cooked there are baked goods and taco meat. The traffic amounts to 17 trucks per day each morning and afternoon, with zero to two tractor-trailers per day (which jumps to four or five in the summer). There are no external trash bins, recycling is picked up once a week and all storage is inside the warehouse, said Nancy Hislop of the county’s regional services center in Germantown.

In a later interview, an MCPS spokeswoman said the facility’s vermin mitigation plan promotes ‘‘very good housekeeping that goes on there.”

‘‘We have not had a problem with rats or any other vermin,” said Kate Harrison, the MCPS spokeswoman.

Answering the outrage over the fire department’s would-be ‘‘burn building” — a practice facility for emergency personnel — Schwartz Jones said that it poses no real environmental threat and that the training exercises use only ‘‘theatrical smoke that then dissipates.”

A slew of other questions about the volume and nature of activity went unanswered, and the officials vowed to host another meeting to answer them.

Much of the emotion stems from the Webb Tract’s past, and the apprehension accrued through years of fighting off uses for the Webb Tract that residents did not want.

So forgive them if they seem on edge, said Mark Firley, president of the South Village Homes Corp.

‘‘... And if you’re wondering why we seem a little resistant, it’s because we have really been hurt the last couple go-arounds,” he said. ‘‘Maybe this has some merit, but right now, it’s going to be an awful hard sell. I think our skepticism is justified.”

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On June 19, Miller and Smith Inc., owner of the Webb Tract property near the Montgomery County Airpark, will hold a community forum to discuss plans to widen Snouffer School Road. The meeting is at 7:30 p.m. at the North Creek Community Center, 20125 Arrowhead Road.