The existing Willet Branch is basically a concrete-lined storm drain Credit: Westbard Sector Plan draft

Montgomery Planning Board members Thursday urged planning department staff to provide more details about how the county can renovate the Willett Branch stream in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood to make it a unique environmental feature.

Planning board member Amy Presley called the updates to the stream, which is currently a concrete-lined storm drain, “core” to the Westbard Sector Plan.

“This is the central thing,” Presley said, “and I really want to understand how we’re going to get it done. Everything else attaches to it.”

Presley asked planning staff to provide more details about cost and engineering for the project in the sector plan and ideas on how to pay for it.

“If we don’t do that, in my opinion, the plan is losing its primary value,” Presley said.

In the draft version of the sector plan, which was presented to the planning board Thursday, environmental planners described turning the existing storm drain into a natural-looking stream with a trail running alongside it. The narrow waterway currently runs through the neighborhood, and planners say it could be renovated into part of a walkable community amenity that connects to the Capital Crescent Trail and Little Falls Parkway.

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“The Willett Branch stream valley has the potential to become a community asset, a unifying feature and a rare natural area right in the heart of Westbard,” planners wrote in the draft sector plan.

Planners are looking at updated streams used as community amenities in Charlotte (left) and Los Angeles (right) for ideas of how to renovate the Willett Branch. (Via the Westbard Sector Plan)

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Planning board member Marye Wells-Harley said if the community heard more details about how the idea could become a reality, that could spur excitement about the plan.

“We need to look at additional ways we can make this a top priority,” Wells-Harley said.

Planning board Chairman Casey Anderson also said that planners need to focus more on how additional development in the area will improve stormwater management. He said Westwood Shopping Center, with its aging retail buildings and massive surface parking lot, “has so much impervious surface.”

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“I think a lot of people assume that redevelopment at a higher intensity of use…is more environmentally damaging,” Anderson said, “when in fact if this area would be redeveloped with baseline [stormwater] rules…we’d get a major environmental impact compared to what’s there right now.”

The developer Equity One has detailed preliminary plans to redevelop the shopping center into a 250,000-square-foot retail center with underground parking. In its initial renderings of the plan, Equity One showed its new retail center with  green, environmentally-friendly roofs, which could also add a stormwater management benefit if built.

On Thursday, the planning board approved the planning staff draft of the sector plan. A public hearing on the plan, the next step in the approval process, is scheduled to take place on Sept. 24.

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Parking lot image (above right) via the Westbard Sector Plan draft

The purple line with dark green shading around it represents a linear park that’s proposed to run along an updated Willet Branch stream. via the Westbard Sector Plan draft.

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