Planning Board Finds Compromise on Controversial Redevelopment of Bethesda Fire Station

The board on Thursday recommended a 'floating zone' for the site, which will require extensive review if the redevelopment ever moves forward

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A preliminary concept drawing for redevelopment of Bethesda Fire Station 6

Via Montgomery County Planning Department

The Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday might have found a compromise on the controversial idea of building a new apartment building on the site of a Bethesda fire station.

At the suggestion of Chairman Casey Anderson, the board tentatively recommended a 70-foot maximum building height and a mixed-use, commercial and residential ‘floating zone’ for Bethesda Fire Station 6 in a new master plan for downtown Bethesda. The station is located at the corner of Bradley Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue on the edge of downtown Bethesda.

The floating zone, if approved in the board’s final version of the plan and by the County Council, would require the nonprofit that owns the property to go through an extensive review and rezoning process if it ever moves to redevelop.

Officials from the Bethesda Fire Department, the nonprofit that owns the fire station, reiterated Thursday they haven’t decided whether to move forward with a redevelopment project that includes a new residential building to help fund a new fire station building. They said any commercial space allowed by the zone would be devoted to the fire station, not retail space.

Nathan Finkelstein, a member of the Bethesda Fire Department’s board, told the Planning Board the nonprofit wouldn’t even consider building an apartment building as part of the project if the county could fund a new standalone station.

The organization says the aging station, built in 1969, needs to be rebuilt to continue to provide services to growing downtown Bethesda.

“The practical reality—we go to the County Council and we talk and we say, ‘Come up with $20 million.’ I don’t think they’re ready to cut that check,” Finkelstein said. “If Warren Buffet or Donald Trump wants to come up and say we’ll give you $20 million to build a fire station, we’ll take it. Of course, it will have to be named Trump Station.”

Residents from Chevy Chase West, the neighborhood of single-family homes directly to the south of the site, have argued since 2014 that approving mixed-use zoning and a taller building height for the property would allow the development of downtown Bethesda to encroach on their neighborhood.

Twelve homes on Nottingham Drive face the back of the existing fire station.

“CR [Commercial-Residential zoning] makes us vulnerable. CR is a threat to the neighborhood,” Naomi Spinrad, the Chevy Chase West resident who has been leading the neighborhood’s opposition to the project, told the Planning Board Thursday.

While the Bethesda Fire Department owns the station and funds some station improvements and equipment, Montgomery County staffs and operates the station with career firefighters from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.

The Bethesda Fire Department’s actual role in firefighting operations has been scrutinized by community leaders such as Spinrad, who on Thursday told the Planning Board that county leaders have told her there is no immediate need to rebuild the station.

Last September, Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin criticized the Bethesda Fire Department’s outreach efforts in a story published in The Washington Post. Finkelstein sent Slavin a letter, calling his comments “outrageous at best and pathetically inaccurate at worst.”

Spinrad and Finkelstein sat side-by-side Thursday at a table in front of the Planning Board, where some of those disagreements persisted.

But Anderson, while expressing support of the idea of redeveloping the site to help fund a new fire station, made it clear the Planning Board was unlikely to approve the Bethesda Fire Department’s request for mixed-use zoning and a maximum building height of 80 feet.

The floating zone concept would require the Bethesda Fire Department to get rezoning approval from the county’s Office of the Hearing Examiner and the council before getting separate project approvals.

Finkelstein appeared to agree to Anderson’s floating zone suggestion, though not before mentioning the council would have the final say.

The Planning Board is scheduled to hold at least four more work sessions on the Bethesda Downtown Plan, the rewrite of the master plan for downtown Bethesda. The next session is set for Feb. 25.

Once the Planning Board finalizes its recommendations, the plan will head to County Executive Ike Leggett and the council, which will have final approval after its own series of public hearings and work sessions.

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