County Planning Board Approves Westbard Sector Plan After Last-Minute Wrangling Over Retail Spaces

County Planning Board Approves Westbard Sector Plan After Last-Minute Wrangling Over Retail Spaces

The controversial zoning and land use recommendations will now be forwarded to the County Council for further review

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Rendering of Equity One's early plans for a new retail center at Westwood Shopping Center

Via Equity One

The Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday approved a controversial set of zoning and land use recommendations it expects will allow for a modern shopping center and naturalization of a stream partially encased in concrete in the Westbard area of Bethesda.

The five-member board voted unanimously to send the Westbard Sector Plan to the County Council, which will review and ultimately approve its own version of the plan after a public hearing set for Jan. 26.

Thursday’s vote ended almost 15 months of work on the plan by the county’s Planning Department, which faced outspoken opposition virtually the entire time from residents of surrounding neighborhoods opposed to redevelopment of the Westwood Shopping Center on Westbard Avenue.

That property, which owner Equity One hopes to redevelop with a new street grid, retail buildings as tall as 60 feet and new town homes, was the impetus for the County Council moving up the Westbard Sector Plan on the Planning Department’s work schedule.

Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson pointed to the improvement of the shopping center, naturalization of the Willett Branch stream and potential pedestrian and bicyclist safety improvements to River Road as three improvements the plan is expected to facilitate.

But he also said that the only way those improvements can happen is if the properties in question are redeveloped.

“Redevelopment is the currency which will pay for those things,” Anderson said. “I’m not suggesting that anybody who doesn’t agree with the plan needs to abandon their opposition. You might say the price is too high. All I want to suggest is that anybody who wants to participate keep in mind if there are things in this plan you think are desirable, than you have to understand what comes with that.”

If Thursday’s board hearing is any indication, Anderson’s message isn’t likely to satisfy some who oppose the redevelopment that could be allowed.

Tom Hearn, a resident of the nearby Sumner neighborhood who said he was instructed to sign up in order to speak near the end of the hearing, stood up to speak just before the vote, saying his questions about the number of new potential apartment units and school overcrowding had gone unanswered.

Hearn told Bethesda Beat after the meeting he had hoped to convince the Planning Board to delay the vote.

Anderson pointed to a table presented during the meeting that said the plan would allow a maximum of 1,380 new residential units in the next five to 10 years and a maximum total of 2,470 new residential units over the entire life of the plan.

County planner John Marcolin said projections of the number of students who would live in potential new development didn’t merit the Planning Board to require a new school in the Westbard area.

“I cannot have people come in on the last day and return to an issue that we have fully considered and given any member of the public a chance to talk about,” Anderson said as Hearn attempted to talk over him. “You’re welcome to talk to our staff and I’ll even meet with you personally and of course you have the opportunity to weigh in with the County Council, but not now.”

Also before the vote, Norman Knopf, an attorney who frequently represents county homeowners against certain aspects of proposed development, argued the board should add language that restricts new retail spaces to 1,000 square feet.

Knopf and area residents he represents are concerned that Equity One’s envisioned 250,000-square-foot retail town center will include big box stores that would generate too much traffic and push out smaller neighborhood-serving businesses that are in the existing shopping center.

Planners already included language noting that redevelopment should be focused on neighborhood-serving retail and the board agreed to add language that says redevelopment should include small, independent retailers.

The board didn’t agree, though, to restrict those new retail spaces to 1,000 square feet.

Michael Berfield, executive vice president of development for Equity One, said none of the existing retailers have spaces smaller than 1,000 square feet.

Berfield also said that despite concerns from existing business owners that they will be priced out during redevelopment, Equity One plans to offer those retailers the same rents, possibly with moderate increases tied to inflation.

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