Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Council shelves talk on townhouse rezoning proposal

Residents, builder given time to discuss development at former School of Art and Design on Georgia Avenue

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The County Council voted Tuesday to delay a decision on a rezoning case in which 27 townhouses would be built in Silver Spring where the School of Art and Design at Montgomery County currently sits. Residents from surrounding neighborhoods had voiced strong opposition to the plan.

Community members and the developer agreed that extra time for argument would be best for both sides.

‘‘I know that all the neighbors are very pleased that we’re getting a chance to speak at a later time on this,” said Spencer Biles, a member of the Plyers Mill Crossing Homeowners Association. ‘‘It shows that the council is going to listen to us.”

Victor Kazanjian, principal with Kaz Development LLC, said although he believes his company has a good case to rezone the area, he agrees that residents have the right to speak to the County Council.

‘‘Everyone needs to have their opinions heard,” Kazanjian said. ‘‘It’s what I expected and it’s appropriate.”

During Tuesday’s council session, Council President Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton noted that council members would be restricted on the topics that could be addressed in September when the council, community and developer meet. She said stormwater management issues, sewage capacity, possible park space, master plan conformance and traffic would be the only topics considered.

Left off the list is the possibility of using the proposed land under rezoning for Legacy Open Space, a county program, which preserves open space to protect the county’s environment, quality of life and economic vitality.

Since the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission had not yet made a decision to designate the area as part of Legacy Open Space, rezoning matters could not be put on hold until program staff reviewed the application, according to a July 11 report by the Montgomery County Hearing Examiner Martin L. Grossman.

Grossman also found that since Montgomery College Foundation Inc. was the owner of the property, it could proceed with plans to sell the land to Kaz Development for the townhouse project. The land transaction is contingent on the rezoning, according to the hearing examiner’s report.

During a meeting Monday night, about 60 people gathered at Woodside United Methodist Church in Silver Spring to voice concerns with the new project and discuss preserving the green space located adjacent to the school.

Del. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington told the crowd that he could not change what was happening with the development and could not even report back to County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring because of ethics rules the council members have to abide by, but he was willing to listen.

‘‘What I’m here for tonight is to make sure your voices are heard,” he said.

The rules of ethics surrounding the County Council came up again during the County Council hearing Tuesday when Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda said that she had received e-mails from the community about the issue. Praisner noted that according to ethics rules, no council member could communicate with either side of the issue off the record in order to ensure that the information is not used to influence decisions.

The area up for rezoning includes the School or Art and Design at Montgomery College, and a large area of green space that is often used by the neighborhood as a makeshift park. The entire area is zoned for single-family homes, but Kazanjian said a townhouse development would be the best use of the land and would fit in well with a nearby townhouse community on Plyers Mill Road. It also is inline with the idea of having high-density housing near Metro stations and major roadways, he said. The project is about halfway between the Forest Glen and Wheaton Metro stations on Georgia Avenue.

However, residents said they would like the area to be saved as green space and used in the county’s Legacy Open Space program.

Beverly Sobel, who was heading the effort to see that Legacy Open Space program takes over the area, said a park would benefit the west side of Georgia Avenue. Evans Parkway Neighborhood Park is located directly across the street on the east side of Georgia Avenue. But Sobel and others said crossing the street to the other park was dangerous.

Christopher Ranpersaud, a resident on Evans Drive, said he would like to see a park on the west side of Georgia Avenue so he wouldn’t have to walk his special needs daughter across the busy state highway.

‘‘[We] need something that can enhance the community or give back to the community,” he said. ‘‘The developer can go someplace else.”

Residents also said the process of getting involved and voicing concerns about the project had been confusing.

‘‘I went to college and the whole nine yards, but I feel this has deliberately been an adventure,” said Mercedes Johnson, a resident of the Plyers Mill Crossing townhouse development. ‘‘It’s enough building. We need someplace for our children to play.”

Kaz Development was also involved in a lawsuit against several hundred residents in the Carroll Knolls community in Silver Spring for having a Declaration of Covenants for their subdivision recorded in 1948 that restricted certain development in the area, such as townhouse development.

‘‘In order to get rid of the covenant, you have to sue everybody who is obligated or benefited by the covenant,” Kazanjian said.

Lynn Calkins, an attorney for Kaz Development, said in an e-mail that the legal process was necessary to declare the covenant void and unusable and that the covenant was outdated and had been violated several times in the last few decades. She said even the School of Arts and Design was in violation of the covenant.

Sobel said that while many residents had trouble understanding the legal matter regarding the covenant, she has collected more than 500 signatures in opposition of the townhouse development and thought the community had already made their voices heard.

While the decision to delay the possible rezoning of the area is one small victory for the community surrounding the arts school, area resident Robin Dambroski said Monday night that the developer should not expect them to back down.

‘‘We might be battle-weary, but we’ll be damned if we throw in the white flag,” she said.

Staff writer Janel Davis contributed to this story.