Ourisman Honda’s attempts to placate a frustrated Bethesda community over concerns that its garage expansion was constructed in a Montgomery County-owned easement of the Capital Crescent Trail largely fell flat Monday night.
Several residents who attended a public meeting in Bethesda said they were unimpressed with the company’s plan to add trail improvements such as a public plaza and landscaping in exchange for the county allowing the car dealership to keep the garage expansion intact.
Trini Rodriguez, a landscape architect hired by Ourisman, explained the company was prepared to add a triangular public plaza along Bethesda Avenue, add some landscaping along the trail, screen the garage to make it more visually appealing and shift the trail slightly toward the Lot 31 development to create an approximately 2-foot-wide separation buffer between the trail and the Ourisman property.
A rendering showing Ourisman's proposal – new landscaping, a plaza near Bethesda Avenue and a small buffer between the garage and the trail.
A rendering showing what the plaza could look like next to the trail.
Layout of the plaza and adjusted entrance to Ourisman Honda
The proposals come about six months after the county ordered the dealership, located near Bethesda Row, to stop building the garage expansion after determining it encroached into the easement. Ourisman is appealing the county’s findings. Since the stop work order, Ourisman has removed two concrete walls that encroached further into the easement than the garage expansion’s steel supports.
Diane Schwartz Jones, the county’s director of the Department of Permitting Services, said the dealership built its garage supports about 10 feet into a 20-foot wide access easement shared by Ourisman and the county. However, she warned that Ourisman is contesting whether the county has a right to the part of the easement where the garage was constructed and said a legal case could take years to determine who is in the right.
Instead, she suggested to the approximately 40 local residents gathered at the meeting at the Bethesda Regional Services Center that accepting amenities from Ourisman in exchange for allowing it to keep the steel and concrete structure that looms over the trail may be the best option moving forward.
Another screening option for the garage presented at Monday's meeting.
However, residents disagreed. One man said Ourisman illegally took the county’s access rights to the easement by building the garage expansion in it. Another man, who stormed out before the meeting concluded, said Ourisman was negligent in building on the easement.
“I find it appalling the county is letting this encroachment go through at this pinch point,” the man said during the meeting. “If [Ourisman] cared about the community, they would give even more room for that bike lane.”
“I see the trail as a great asset to people who are lucky enough to live near it,” Bethesda resident Richard Hoye said to Ourisman officials. “I don’t think your company has done it justice.”
Hoye added the garage offers a similar “slap in the face” welcome to Bethesda for trail users as the downtown Metro station does to riders with its heavy use of exposed concrete.
Chris Ourisman, son of company president John Ourisman, said the company’s improvement plan is an attempt to bring the dealership “into the 21st century.”
“We want something Bethesda can be proud of,” Ourisman said. “If we had been more creative, had the opportunity of hindsight or done this a few more times, this would have been the first proposal.”
An image from over the winter showing the garage and adjoining concrete walls that have since been removed next to the Capital Crescent Trail. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, the only elected official who attended the meeting, said he was unimpressed.
“That park is bupkis,” Elrich said, adding that the dealership’s proposal would likely cost much less than the millions of dollars that it would cost to remove the encroaching part of the garage expansion from the easement. “The community is getting a pie-shaped wedge and a little bit of screen. To me, it seems inappropriate. I would rather fight it than compromise.”
However, Schwartz Jones warned about using legal means to fight over the structure. She explained that she’s a former county attorney who worked on acquiring the Georgetown Branch Easement, which spawned legal fights with the Columbia Country Club and Chevy Chase Land Co. that went on for years.
She described Ourisman’s garage expansion as a “serious investment” and said that “businesses have interests that are worthy of protecting as well.”
“Are we going to spend a lot of time on appeal?” Schwartz Jones asked. “[Or] can we instead have money go into actual improvements in the area?”
She said she has the ability to take a “scorched Earth approach” with Ourisman, but she doesn’t believe the public will benefit as much by doing so.
“Let’s see if there’s something better we can do there and the money can actually go into improving the area instead of the litigation piece,” Schwartz Jones said. She said the county does not know how much the proposed improvements would cost Ourisman because designs are still in the conceptual stage.
Some residents did see the proposed improvements as a step in the right direction and suggested also removing the curb cut where the trail meets Bethesda Avenue to allow cyclists to pass through the intersection more easily. Meanwhile, residents of the Sacks neighborhood—which abuts the trail—described Ourisman as a noisy neighbor that has brushed off their concerns in the past about early morning trash pickups and other issues.
If the county agrees to the improvements, it would create a franchise agreement with Ourisman over the use of the shared easement, according to Schwartz Jones. The agreement would allow the county to retain the air and surface rights to the easement in the future for a rail line if necessary—the county acquired the easement from the rail company CSX in the 1980s.
Schwartz Jones said County Executive Ike Leggett has seen “iterations” of Ourisman’s proposal and that he supports reaching an agreement with the dealership. She said she did not know whether the county would move forward with the proposal. If it does, the public would have the opportunity to comment on it during the approval process before the county’s park and planning officials. The county officials at the meeting did not provide a clear timetable of when a decision would be made about whether to accept the deal with Ourisman.
Elrich said he was surprised the county didn’t put forth a more neutral stance in presenting Ourisman’s plans after the meeting.
“I would have been comfortable with the community coming up with whatever the community comes up with,” Elrich said. “But we shouldn’t be making people feel like it’s a lost cause to fight it. Maybe we end up fighting it for years, but the truth is they did something they probably shouldn’t have done.”
Ourisman and county officials, as well as community members, look on during a presentation about the garage Monday night.