The County Council on Tuesday formally approved new zoning for the Westbard neighborhood of Bethesda that has become a flashpoint for those opposed to redevelopment in the mostly suburban county.
The Westbard Sector Plan, which the nine-member council passed unanimously, will allow Equity One, the area’s major property owner, to redevelop the aging Westwood Shopping Center and adjacent properties into a retail center with 60-foot-tall buildings, underground parking, a street grid, parks and—to the dismay of many who opposed the plan—new housing in the form of townhomes and apartment buildings along Westbard Avenue.
In addition, Capital Properties, which owns the Park Bethesda apartments on Westbard Avenue, will be permitted to pursue another high-rise apartment building on its property.
While all 1,200 additional new housing units permitted under the zoning may never be built, residents living in the area’s neighborhoods of single-family homes protested the plan at an increasing intensity over the last few weeks, even after a pared-down version approved by a council straw vote in March cut in half the amount of allowable development proposed by the Planning Board.
In April, a loosely organized group of residents called Save Westbard protested the pared-down version at the Westwood Shopping Center, maintaining that no additional building density should be allowed in the area.
“Clearly, many of my constituents do not feel as though they were heard, or their views and wishes for their community honored,” said County Council member Roger Berliner, who represents the area. “Indeed, the Save Westbard proponents demand that we allow nothing more than what was approved more than 30 years ago [the date of the last Westbard Sector Plan]. That to me is not looking at the future, but looking in the rear view mirror.”
Council member Marc Elrich, who heavily criticized the Planning Board’s recommendations for the plan, even getting into a heated exchange with a Planning Board commissioner after a February public hearing, said Tuesday that, “I don’t see any point at this point of voting against this.”
Elrich, who was the lone council member to vote against sector plans prescribing more development for Chevy Chase Lake and the Long Branch section of Silver Spring, complimented Berliner’s push to cut the allowed density from what was proposed by the Planning Board.
But he pushed back on the notion suggested by Berliner and council member Hans Riemer that the increased affordable housing requirements in the plan were something to celebrate.
“People on the other side shouldn’t oversell doom and gloom and we shouldn’t oversell the brilliance of our plan,” Elrich said. “It is, I believe going to be better than what is there now, certainly for the shopping center.”
Tuesday’s formal approval was widely expected, especially after the council had already approved the plan by a straw vote March 22. But it came amid increasing vitriol from some people opposed to the plan, and some in other parts of the county opposed to more density during redevelopment.
Protesters attending rallies last week and in April held signs reading “Betrayed by The County Council,” “Dump Berliner,” and “Modernize not urbanize.”
Some claimed developers have corrupted the county’s planning process, even shouting such accusations at Berliner during a rally last week in front of the Council Office Building in Rockville.
“I have certainly gotten the message that this vote may cost me politically,” Berliner said Tuesday. “However, part of the reason why people have lost faith in their elected leaders is because they see them constantly trying to see which way the political winds are blowing rather than standing by their convictions. I am going to stand by my conviction that we are doing the right thing by approving this master plan.”
As Tuesday’s formal vote approached, members of the Save Westbard group that organized the protests boasted support from community leaders in other parts of the county, including North Bethesda, Damascus and the Lyttonsville section of Silver Spring, which is undergoing a similar sector plan process at the county’s Planning Board.
One resident, Abbe Milstein of the Luxmanor neighborhood in North Bethesda, wrote in an email to county officials that, “Families in our neighborhood have paid premium prices to live primarily in detached single-family homes on quiet streets under a leafy, tree-covered canopy where our children can attend world-class public schools. And we’d like it to stay that way.”
An email submitted by the newly formed group Tuesday before the final vote said “the undersigned communities stand together and will use every legal and political means at their disposal to reform the planning process, to put an end to unwanted over-development, and to create a process that involves maximum citizen participation.”
Throughout the process, county planning officials and council members said the only way to finance upgrades for the shopping center, new parks and open spaces and a more efficient street alignment was through added density.
The plan also includes an increase in the minimum amount of income-restricted affordable housing from the countywide standard of 12.5 percent of all new units to 15 percent of new units, and some requirements pertaining to the naturalization of the Willett Branch Stream, which now runs in a concrete channel through the area.