The County Council offered Tuesday its preliminary approval to a new master plan for the Westbard section of Bethesda that could allow as many as 1,213 new residential units to be built in the area over the next 30 years.
The council recommendations are expected to be approved by a formal vote in April. The plan as it stands would cut the maximum allowable number of new residential units suggested by the Planning Board in half, in large part by maintaining existing zoning for properties along River Road that weren’t expected to redevelop any time soon.
The council also tentatively agreed to increase the amount of income-restricted affordable housing required for the plan area to 15 percent of new units instead of the county standard of 12.5 percent.
Map of the Westbard Sector Plan area, via Planning Department
As for the Westwood Shopping Center site, which owner Equity One hopes to redevelop relatively quickly, the council in a straw vote Monday moved to further reduce the maximum allowable density.
The developer will likely be allowed a maximum commercial square footage that’s 0.75 percent of the property’s total square footage. The property is now home to a Giant Food-anchored shopping center that is mostly covered by a surface parking lot.
The Planning Department began working on the Westbard Sector Plan in 2014 and the suggestion of redevelopment in the area quickly drew loud opposition from long-time residents who live in single-family neighborhoods around the shopping center.
Many pointed to the area’s lack of transit access and said more housing units and a new retail center would bring more students to already overcrowded local schools and more traffic to already traffic-clogged River Road—a major connector from the Capital Beltway to Washington, D.C.
Even compared to other boisterous development debates in the county, the contentious debate over the Westbard plan was noticeable. One November 2014 meeting devolved into residents shouting criticisms at county planners. During council public hearings in February, opponents urged the council to defund the Planning Board, implied council members were influenced by political contributions from developers and equated developers to the Koch brothers.
“There is a reason why this plan has not been updated for 30 years,” council member Roger Berliner said Tuesday.
He said former Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson once told him the Westbard plan “was going to be one of the most difficult plans we would deal with,” because the area isn’t transit accessible or urban, but is inside the Capital Beltway and less than 2 miles from the Washington, D.C., line.
“I do think we have tried as hard as we know how to listen to our community,” said Berliner, who as the district representative of Westbard suggested cutting down on the amount of new allowable development suggested by the Planning Board.
Others, including council member George Leventhal, said he saw the council’s version of the plan as a “trade-off worth making.”
“Change is threatening because the place is so nice,” Leventhal said of the community opposition to redevelopment of the area. “I’m very sympathetic to what Mr. Berliner has had to cope with. He’s offered a lot of amendments here in response to the community. He’s been criticized. That’s fine, it comes with the job, but it’s been difficult for him. I think it’s a good outcome and I’m going to vote for it.”
Council member Marc Elrich, a frequent “no” vote on new county master plans and critic of the county’s planning process, didn’t provide his general thoughts on the plan during Tuesday’s council session.
But during a Monday night meeting of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board, Elrich made his continued opposition to the Westbard plan clear, while also saying he thought Berliner’s recommendations were sensible.
“I’ve been quoted as saying it is the worst plan possibly ever and I stand by that,” Elrich told the group Monday. “Westbard was never an activity center. It was never meant to be developed. …So for many reasons, I thought the plan was a serious mistake.”
The only significant debate among council members Tuesday was over the future zoning for a group of River Road properties now home to the Talbert’s Ice & Beverage Service store, American Plant nursery and a roofing center.
By a 5-4 straw vote, the council approved leaving the properties as a floating zone, meaning any future redevelopment of the sites would be subject to a more cumbersome approval process involving a separate zoning review.
Those against the floating zone and in favor of changing the zoning with the new plan included council President Nancy Floreen, who said doing so would provide more of an incentive to the property owners to seek redevelopment that could bring improvements to the Willett Branch stream, which runs through the properties.
The stream is now in a concrete channel that’s prone to trash dumping and is especially sensitive to stormwater runoff. County planners, with support from many in the community, hoped redevelopment along certain properties would help pay for restoring the stream into a more natural state that would include a park and trail.
“The Willett Branch was a priority in this plan,” Floreen said. “I think it’s fading as a priority under the circumstances.”
Berliner, who supported the floating zone, said it was necessary so the effects of any future development there could be judged in relation to what presumably will have already happened on other sites including the Westwood Shopping Center.