Montgomery County Planning Board members initially weren’t thrilled about wading into the controversy over the Ourisman Honda dealership’s garage, which looms large over the Capital Crescent Trail in downtown Bethesda.
However, a Thursday evening hearing concluded with a sense of optimism that the dispute could have a happy ending.
The board gave its blessing to a proposed deal worked out between the county and the car dealership: Ourisman Honda could keep the three-level garage expansion it started constructing last year, even though the structure overlaps onto the trail’s right-of-way. In exchange, the business across would have to provide a public plaza at Bethesda Avenue and widen the trail from 14 to 16 feet along its property line.
“If I had my druthers, I’d druther not have this conversation,” board member Mary Wells-Harley said. “But … I think we should embrace this as an opportunity to create something really unique.”
The board also offered its own recommendations for the final compromise between the county and Ourisman Honda. Chairman Casey Anderson urged the dealership to view the garage wall facing the trail as a blank canvas rather than an eyesore and suggested it could become a mural or other form of public art.
“Hopefully, it’s not a big car ad,” he quipped.
The Ourisman Honda garage expansion in Bethesda from over the winter. Since this photo was taken Ourisman removed the two cement walls pictured here. Credit: Andrew Metcalf.
Board members also wanted the deal to state that Ourisman should work to address community complaints about routine business activities at the dealership. Residents who live in the Sacks neighborhood adjacent to the business have voiced frustration about the noise, light pollution and fumes coming from the site.
“Our concerns are about the noise of pressurized machinery, hydraulic wrenches and tools, horns, dumpster pickups, and car alarms echoing off our houses from 6 a.m. in the morning until sometimes after 10 p.m.,” resident Amy Patton told the board.
She was one of two Sacks residents who spoke at the hearing.
Attorney Robert Brewer, representing the dealership, pledged that he and the Ourisman family would work in good faith to solve the issues. Brewer also said Ourisman agreed that the garage wall could be put to creative use.
The proposal worked out between the county and car business will now head to the County Council for a final decision.
The disagreement over the garage dates from last year, when a resident filed a complaint with the county about how close the steel-frame garage sits to the trail. Officials say the garage’s steel columns stand inside the county’s 10-foot-wide easement, which runs parallel to the trail. The county in November ordered a halt to construction on the structure, and since then, officials and business owners have been sorting through legal complexities stretching back decades.
The location of the steel columns in the county's 10-foot-wide easement (Parcel B). Image via Montgomery County Planning Department.
Diane Schwartz Jones, director of the county’s Department of Permitting Services, said she’s confident the county’s claim to the space would stand up to judicial scrutiny.
“But getting there involves lengthy litigation,” she said. “And as it’s wending its way, nobody wins.”
The proposal that she helped negotiate would create public amenities that would be unavailable any other way, she said.
Planning staff had recommended requiring Ourisman to add another 600 square feet to its proposal for a 2,200-square-foot plaza. However, Brewer said the dealership couldn’t accommodate the request, since it would mean sacrificing its only customer parking spaces.
The board ended up siding with Brewer and didn’t demand the larger plaza.
Schwartz Jones estimated that Ourisman Honda’s proposed improvements would cost the business more than $1 million.