Montgomery County’s dispute with Ourisman Honda in downtown Bethesda over the expansion of the dealership’s garage into a shared Capital Crescent Trail easement is headed to a resolution later this month.
During a public hearing Tuesday afternoon, the council heard from nine people, eight of whom approved of a deal struck between the county and Ourisman in which the dealership would provide trail improvements including a new public plaza and landscaping in exchange for being able to keep its mostly built garage expansion.
Part of the garage expansion was built into an easement that the Bethesda Avenue business shares with the county. The company has maintained that it believed it had the right to build on the property.
Citing the issue with the easement, the county ordered Ourisman to stop construction on the building in November 2016.
Since then the two sides have negotiated a deal in which Ourisman would provide about $1.4 million in improvements around the structure.. Those improvements include a new 1,300-square-foot public plaza to be constructed next to where the trail meets Bethesda Avenue, new shoulders along the trail next to the Ourisman property, additional landscaping and a screen on the garage to make it more visually appealing.
A rendering showing how the garage could look like when completed with the improvements. Via Council staff documents
The dealership also agreed to move its driveway farther away from where the trail meets Bethesda Avenue to reduce potential conflicts between trail users and cars entering and exiting the business. The business is next to the busy Bethesda Row retail area.
The council is scheduled to vote Feb. 27 on whether to approve the deal.
Diane Schwartz-Jones, the director of the county’s Department of Permitting Services who has been handling the dispute for the county, told the council that the deal enables the county to get trail improvements while avoiding a possibly protracted legal dispute. She said it’s not clear whether the county would win if it asked a court to decide on the dispute over the easement.
Chris Conklin, the county’s Department of Transportation deputy director, told the council that County Executive Ike Leggett supports the deal.
The proposed design of the public plaza, which would be built where the trail meets Bethesda Avenue near Bethesda Row.
Dealership owner John Ourisman said the garage expansion was designed to move vehicles more efficiently into and out of the business. As a resident of downtown Bethesda and frequent user of the trail himself, he said the dealership is “excited to be part of the next phase of the trail’s beautification.”
Others, including Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce President Ginanne Italiano, Bethesda businessman Jack Alexander and Jane Mahaffie, a principal at the developer StonebridgeCarras, testified in favor of the deal.
“It’s a solution that in our opinion enhances the environment of the area,” said Mahaffie of StonebridgeCarras, which developed the Flats at Bethesda Avenue apartments across the trail from Ourisman.
Ron Tripp, chairman of the trail advocacy Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, said Tuesday the group also supports the deal.
Citing National Park Service statistics, he noted about 82,000 people used the part of the trail that runs by the dealership in May, and said the improvements would increase safety and the appearance of the trail at the location.
Amy Patton, a resident of Bethesda’s Sacks Neighborhood, was the only person to testify who didn’t expressly support the deal. She noted that she lives next to the Ourisman Honda property and would like Ourisman to agree to reduce noise and lighting emanating from the dealership.
Tuesday’s general support for the deal was in sharp contrast to the opposition expressed during evening community meetings last year, when many residents spoke out against the dealership for encroaching on the easement and called on county leaders to push for more improvements.
The garage as it looked in November 2016 when the county ordered the business to stop work on its construction. Since then the concrete walls near the trail have been removed, although the steel-framed structure remains. Credit: Andrew Metcalf