County Council No Closer to Solving School Bus Parking Controversy

County Council No Closer to Solving School Bus Parking Controversy

Council appears poised to delay process for handing over land of Shady Grove school bus depot

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The Shady Grove school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville

Aaron Kraut

While the County Council appears poised to delay the transfer of the land housing the Shady Grove school bus depot to two developers, a Tuesday council session came no closer to determining where the 410 buses at the Rockville site should go and if the redevelopment should move forward at all.

Eight of nine council members said they will vote to disapprove a formal process called the Declaration of No Further Need for the site, which has alternatively been referred to as Jeremiah Park. The ninth, council member Tom Hucker, didn’t speak at the hearing.

Council President Nancy Floreen said she would schedule the vote for next week’s council session.

In 2014, the county entered into an agreement to sell the depot land, along with the adjacent land used for warehouse and maintenance facilities of other county agencies, to developers LCOR and NVR as part of its Shady Grove Smart Growth Initiative.

Thanks to land-use regulations established by the 2006 Shady Grove Sector Plan and influenced by the site’s close proximity to the Shady Grove Metro station, the developers can build up to 345 townhomes, 344 apartment units and a new park, and prepare a new elementary school site on the 45 acres now home to the bus depot along Crabbs Branch Way.

A similar deal with developer EYA for the county land across the street from the bus depot has resulted in an under-construction community of townhomes and apartment buildings with ground-floor retail.

Refusing to approve the Declaration of No Further Need next week wouldn’t prevent the council from approving the formal process in the future.  But council members made clear that County Executive Ike Leggett and the county’s Department of General Services must resolve the issue of where to park the buses beforehand.

“We don’t have a plan yet today. We don’t know precisely where to relocate the buses and as a result we need to leave them at Jeremiah Park,” council member George Leventhal said.

For years, the county has struggled to find sites to accommodate the Shady Grove depot’s 410 buses, maintenance facilities, parking for bus drivers and space for bus driver training. Practically every suggested replacement site, including an old landfill in Derwood, has been panned by neighboring community or environmental groups as potentially too disruptive.

“We’ve got a mess. The mess hasn’t gotten any better, it’s gotten deeper,” council member Sidney Katz said.

Tuesday’s full council hearing on the search for replacement bus sites was prompted by the latest community outrage over potential replacement locations—this time two suggested interim sites in Rockville.

One, a depot to be created for 100 buses on an existing parking lot in front of the Carver Educational Services Center, was the subject of a raucous May public meeting that appeared to catch several council members off guard.

The second, an interim lot on a mostly empty swath of light industrial land at 1000 Westmore Ave., has drawn the scorn of the nearby Lincoln Park community and was disapproved by the Planning Board last week because planners said the buses would be too disruptive to residents.

Elected officials from the City of Rockville have actively campaigned against both sites, though the Westmore site sits just outside the city’s borders. Members of the Carver Coalition, a group of residents near the Carver site, wore yellow shirts as they sat in the council chamber Tuesday.

“Frankly, the Shady Grove location is probably the best location we’ll ever have,” council member Marc Elrich said.

Council staff suggested keeping the Carver and Westmore interim lots under consideration, a suggestion some council members said they wouldn’t support, even though they had supported past capital budget amendments providing the county and school system with the funding to buy the Westmore site and prep the Carver site.

The county has already entered into an agreement to buy the Westmore site for $12 million. Department of General Services Director David Dise told Bethesda Beat the county must move forward with the purchase, but may be able to use the property for uses other than parking buses.

Before the hearing, the council met in closed session to discuss the potential purchase of sites where the buses can be relocated and potential legal implications of not moving forward with the process.

Dise told Bethesda Beat the county has not finalized a General Development Agreement with LCOR and NVR for the Shady Grove bus depot site. He said there is no deadline of January 2017 to move the buses—an assumption the Board of Education was working under while considering the Carver site. Work on prepping that site has been stopped.

Council staff also suggested reviving a proposal heavily criticized by Aspen Hill residents last year to use the Avery Road property of the Blair Ewing Center as a replacement bus lot. That new bus depot could work in combination with another  new depot at the former Oaks Landfill in the Laytonsville and Olney area, council staff said.

Council member Nancy Navarro told colleagues that her constituents in the Olney area likely wouldn’t be happy with that idea.

“I don’t think it will be very well received,” Navarro said.

Floreen said the county’s problem is that no community appears likely to accept a new bus depot.

“We could have this room filled with a different group on a different day,” she said. “And that is the challenge.”

The council asked Dise and the county to return in the fall with a more detailed cost-benefit analysis of the proposed deal with LCOR and NVR. The hearing ended with little discussion of alternative bus depot sites.

Only one council member on Tuesday strongly backed the county’s efforts for residential development of the Shady Grove bus depot site.

Craig Rice said that while he will also vote to disapprove the Declaration of No Further Need, some of his constituents in Clarksburg live near a school system bus depot without experiencing problems.

“There’s not a lot of land left in Montgomery County and there are a lot of people who still want to experience the great things that [are] Montgomery County,” Rice said. “That’s a beautiful thing and we should share that. I want to make sure that point is out there because a lot of residents, unfortunately, aren’t of that same opinion. They want to keep those great things that are in Montgomery County just to themselves.”

Members of the Carver Coalition in the audience began booing before Rice said he wasn’t referring specifically to them.

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