Town of Chevy Chase Sounds Gentler Tone on Purple Line, Downtown Bethesda Development

Town known for opposing light-rail project will now put its focus on mitigation

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via Town of Chevy Chase website

The town of almost 2,800 people in Chevy Chase that spent half-a-million dollars to fight the Purple Line no longer will focus on outright opposition of the light-rail system.

The Town of Chevy Chase, part of which is next to the Capital Crescent Trail where the light-rail system will run, spent about $480,000 since 2013 on a lobbying contract to convince federal and state policy makers to cancel the project.

It was part of the town’s longstanding and well-chronicled opposition to the Purple Line. But with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision in June to go forward with a cheaper version of the project and new leadership in the town, that position has officially changed.

“Mitigation is extremely important right now,” Mayor Al Lang said at a Town Council meeting Wednesday night. “It’s really hard to try to mitigate and kill the project at the same time.”

The five-member council came close to adopting a resolution declaring the town “no longer seeks to block construction of the Purple Line.”

After Council member Kathy Strom objected to that language, the council approved language saying the town “wishes to focus its efforts on mitigation of rather than opposition to the Purple Line.”

A group of town residents this summer created a matrix of options for responding to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and whichever private company it picks early next year to design, build and operate the system.

Lang, Vice Mayor John Bickerman and newly elected Council member Fred Cecere all said Wednesday that it’s time the town sends a message to the state and county that it’s ready to work to mitigate potential effects.

The matrix of options did include joining an environmental lawsuit against the project started by town residents and the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail group. The council Wednesday encouraged the group bringing the suit to continue its work, but said it’s not interested in officially joining the suit.

“Our opposition has resulted in the state not wanting to deal with us, not wanting to negotiate with us and what we now face and we need to recognize if we want to accomplish anything is it’s going to be through negotiation,” Bickerman said.

The town is especially nervous about one cost-cutting decision made by Hogan: Eliminating a green, grassy track bed in favor of a more typical gravel rail bed. Town leaders and residents are concerned that could create more noise.

The MTA has already promised four-foot high noise walls along the light-rail as it passes behind homes in the town, something that it’s legally required to provide because it’s in the Record of Decision (ROD) approved by the federal government.

But the town says other mitigation features, such as storm water management and how crews will handle construction near town homes, are still up in the air.

Lang, who took over as mayor of the town after a bitterly controversial election in May, said he recently met with Mike Madden, the Purple Line’s deputy project director, and could feel Madden warming up to him when he mentioned the town wouldn’t be fighting the project anymore.

“He felt all along that we were not dealing with him fairly,” Lang said. “I don’t know if that’s true. But as you talk to these people about this and convey the message you’re no longer trying to kill it, block it, stop it, there’s much more openness to them.”

The council on Wednesday also approved of the town joining the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, something Lang said could help maximize its influence during deliberations over development in nearby downtown Bethesda.

In advocating for joining the chamber, Lang criticized a group of local towns and civic associations called the Coalition of Bethesda Communities that’s monitoring the Downtown Bethesda Sector Plan process.

Pat Burda, a former mayor of the town who was ousted in May, helped organize the group, which was concerned about how high-density development allowed by the sector plan could affect surrounding neighborhoods.

With Burda sitting in the back of the room, Lang on Wednesday said he attended a Coalition of Bethesda Communities meeting and found its members weren’t very focused and that some of them “didn’t seem to know why they were there.”

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