Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sewer extension request raises concern

Owners of Potomac Oak Shopping Center want improvements

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The owners of the Potomac Oak Shopping Center, a small commercial center located at the corner of Glen and Travilah roads, are reaching out to the community about their plans to improve the center after community associations raised concerns about their proposed sewer extension to the site.

The two owners – Potomac developers Guy Semmes and Michael Denker – held meetings throughout last month to inform the community about their plans to beef up the North Potomac center with more commercial enterprises.

Semmes said he envisions a thriving center that would meet the needs of people in the growing North Potomac community.

‘‘My intention is to improve the center and provide services that the community wants,” Semmes told The Gazette. Currently, however, the property uses a septic system, which limits the businesses that are feasible for the site, said Semmes, who has owned the 3.5-acre property since 2003.

Semmes said that the improvements he hopes to make are within the site’s approved expansion limits, and no zoning change would be necessary. However, the businesses he envisions for the shopping center, including a small, quality grocery store and a family restaurant with outdoor seating, would all require sewer because of the increased water use, Semmes said. ‘‘The problem is, there’s no place to put [the water],” Semmes said.

Semmes said he hopes to extend a sewer line along the Travilah Road right-of-way in order to service the site.

The sewer line extension would require a water and sewer category change, requests which must be approved by the Montgomery County Council. Hearings for such requests are held twice a year. At a spring hearing, Semmes and Denker deferred their application after outcry from the community that if approved, the sewer extension would violate the master plan for the Potomac subregion and the County’s Water and Sewer Plan.

Expanding sewer lines into the area — which is located outside of the county’s sewer envelope — would create the potential for increased density in the area should others attempt to use the sewer, and open the floodgates for requests from other areas of the county, according to Ginny Barnes, president of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.

‘‘The whole look and feel of Potomac is built on two things – our zoning and the limits of sewer,” Barnes said. ‘‘That’s why we have all this green space...that’s why people want to live here.”

Four community associations, including Barnes’, sent a joint letter to Council opposing the plan.

‘‘Such a dangerous precedent could open other low density and rural areas of the County to commercial expansion by developers also seeking privately funded sewers,” read a letter addressed to the County Council and signed by the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, the North Potomac Citizens Association, the Darnestown Civic Association, and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

County planning staff has agreed. Callum Murray, the Potomac area team leader for the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission’s community planning staff, said he would expect an increase in applications for sewer extensions from areas that now function on septic systems if the application were passed. ‘‘I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Murray said.

While saying that he is willing to continue to work with the associations, Semmes felt that he has already addressed some of the concern. The sewer line would be available only to the center, not to others in the area, he said.

Semmes said that anyone else who applies for a sewer extension would also be subject to Council approval. ‘‘It’s not a simple process,” Semmes said. ‘‘Everyone weighs in.”

Semmes said he hopes to continue to work to address community concerns and return to the council with the application in the fall.