2014 | News

Bethesda’s Sacks Neighborhood Again Contemplates Its Future

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Some residents of Bethesda’s Sacks neighborhood say it’s time Montgomery County lets them cash in on their downtown location.

But as county planners consider new zoning and land use guidelines as part of a new area master plan, it appears unlikely county officials are willing to allow more density in an established neighborhood of single family homes — even as a core group of residents asks for it.

“They talk about smart growth all the time,” said Leland Street resident Ellen Rader. “How are they applying it?”

Rader argues the community of 60 homes along Leland Street and Wellington Drive is in a position unlike any other single family home neighborhood in Bethesda.

Unlike Edgemoor, the Town of Chevy Chase or Chevy Chase West — surrounding neighborhoods that have expressed wariness about increased development — Sacks has no buffer zone from downtown Bethesda.

“We are the buffer zone,” Rader said.

The Darcy and The Flats project on the former Lot 31 site rise up just feet behind the backyard fences of homes on Leland Street. The single family homes in the shadow of the giant construction project look as if they’ve been cut and pasted into the scene.

Leland Street residents Linda and Gordon Swan said most mornings for the past two years haven’t required a wake-up alarm. Construction on a separate apartment project at the former Arlington Road Post Office site has provided enough noise to get the job done, almost always at 7 a.m.

It’s that constant change that has Rader, the Swans and some others thinking the single family home neighborhood has outlasted its stay.

“The way it is just can’t survive,” said Sacks Neighborhood Association President Cristina Echavarren. “It’s just not ever going to be the same. The development is encroaching on our neighborhood and every time it gets worse. The county says they want to protect us. That’s not happening if everyone is building around us.”

Not everyone agrees.

Rader said part of the problem is a wide-ranging variety of opinions, somewhat dependent on where in the neighborhood one is located.

Many on Leland Street — closest to the towering new apartment buildings, noise and cut-thru traffic — have expressed some desire to selling off their properties. Wellington Drive is, for the most part, a different story. It’s more protected from Lot 31, Arlington Road and even Wisconsin Avenue, though some homes are opposite an aging garden-style apartment building.

Recent history is also playing a large role.

In 2006 and 2007, Echavarren was part of a group that formed the Sacks Neighborhood Council. After receiving an unsolicited offer from one developer, the Neighborhood Council went out to test the waters.

Major developer Monument Realty showed some major interest — at one point offering a reported $3 million per homeowner in an attempt to buy up and redevelop the community into something that looked more like next-door Bethesda Row.

But Monument eventually lowered its offer. Echavarren said some vocal opposition in the neighborhood led to Monument’s inability to piece together enough adjacent lots to form big enough blocks. The prospect of a costly county review process to get the area rezoned also played a factor in pushing Monument away, Echavarren said.

The Neighborhood Council group did surveys of homeowners, claiming it had 49 signed on who said they were interested in looking in to a redevelopment deal.

“One of the nights, a homeowner said to me, ‘I don’t care how much you get for me as long as I get a million dollars more than my neighbor,'” Echavarren claimed. “That is how polarizing and how greedy the neighborhood was concerning Monument. People just thought of it as a lottery.”

To demonstrate the small degrees to which opinions in the neighborhood differ, take Rader. While she’s pushing for the county to consider upzoning the neighborhood, she also said the idea of one developer redeveloping the neighborhood in one fell swoop seemed “a little drastic.”

Linda Swan suggested a mid-rise condo could be appropriate, similar to the development of former single family home lots on Montgomery Lane in downtown Bethesda.

Making things a bit more complicated, Echavarren said some homeowners have appeared to change their tune since rejecting the Mounment offer seven years ago.

“Frankly, people are at different stages in life,” Echavarren said.

One of the results has been an increase in homes for rent in the neighborhood. Echavarren said she’s moving to Annapolis soon. But she’ll hold on to the property and rent it out until the master plan gives some indication of the neighborhood’s future.

“Why would you sell now?” Rader asked.

On Sept. 30, county planners met with Sacks residents and indicated they weren’t interested in adding more density to the neighborhood. It’s possible residents there would get transfer development rights, which would allow developers building projects in other parts of Bethesda to buy up density rights from Sacks homeowners in a neighborhood that wouldn’t stay single family.

But with more redevelopment expected along the Wisconsin Avenue and Bradley Boulevard borders of Sacks, many say it won’t help their ultimate problem.

“If nothing happens, this neighborhood is in the ideal location for sure,” Linda Swan said. “But the apartment buildings are here and they will keep coming and the quality of life will keep going down. We’re already surrounded.”