‘Save Westbard’ Group Stages Protest Outside Council Building in Rockville

‘Save Westbard’ Group Stages Protest Outside Council Building in Rockville

County Council expected to formally approve Westbard Sector Plan next week

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Robert Lipman (speaking) at Tuesday's 'Save Westbard' protest in Rockville

Aaron Kraut

Residents opposed to the Westbard Sector Plan protested Tuesday morning in front of the County Council’s Rockville office building, angrily shouting down the council member who pushed a pared-down version of the plan and alleging collusion between county officials and developers.

“I came here not because I share your point of view, because I do not and I’m sorry with respect to that,” council member Roger Berliner said as the crowd booed and some yelled, “You don’t represent us.”

“I actually reduced this plan by half,” Berliner tried to continue as protesters continued to shout. Less than a minute later, after continued booing and shouting, Berliner cut his speech short, gave up the microphone and walked back into the building for the council’s regular session.

“If you accept campaign contributions from developers, you lack the moral authority to mess with my neighborhood,” protester Robert Lipman said to raucous applause from the approximately 70 people at the event.

Some of the residents recently started a website called TheWestbardPapers.org, which includes email correspondence between land use lawyers, county planners and county Planning Board commissioners that the group obtained through public information requests. None of the emails appear to show any wrongdoing.

But protesters such as Irving Lieberman said it’s apparent to them major Westbard property owner Equity One had too much influence in the plan.

“They’ve disregarded everything we’ve said. They’re going for density and tax revenue and the public be damned,” Lieberman said. “You can tell there’s pressure on these people.”

With a March 22 straw vote, the full council already approved a version of the plan that cut in half the amount of allowable density recommended by the board. Floreen said she delayed the final approval until the first week in May, calling the lag time between the straw vote and formal approval “unprecedented” days after the Save Westbard group organized a similar protest earlier this month in Westbard.

The plan as tentatively approved by the council would allow for as many as 1,213 new residential units over 30 years in the area around Westbard Avenue and River Road, down from the 2,470 units recommended by the board.

It would allow for Equity One to redevelop the Westwood Shopping Center into a new retail center with underground parking and an adjacent townhome community.

It also would increase the amount of income-restricted affordable housing units in new Westbard development from the countywide standard of 12.5 percent to 15 percent of all housing units, with even more affordable housing required from certain projects such as a suggested new apartment building at the Park Bethesda property.

On Monday, council member George Leventhal forwarded a petition from 182 Westbard area residents in support of the amended plan approved by the March 22 straw vote.

Developing a new master plan for Westbard has been creating controversy since planners started the process in fall 2014, resulting in raucous public meetings and one of the most animated council public hearings in recent memory.

Berliner, who represents the area, had previously acknowledged that creating a master plan for Westbard is particularly tricky because the area has no mass transit infrastructure and doesn’t fit the county’s transit-oriented development goals.

But it is within the Capital Beltway, about a mile from Friendship Heights, and contains the aging Westwood Shopping Center that most agree is in need of changes.

After the protests earlier this month, Berliner sent a lengthy open letter to the community explaining his reasons for supporting the amended plan and how he thinks the redevelopment that has been suggested by Equity One will improve the community.

As he handed the microphone back to an organizer of the protest, a resident shouted that he and other council members were “corrupt” for agreeing to new zoning and density.

The plan is expected to be approved Tuesday. Council member Marc Elrich has decried the process behind the sector plan, but has indicated some support for Berliner’s version.

After speaking to the protesters Tuesday, he said he wasn’t sure if he would vote to approve the plan next week.

“I’m trying to decide what to do,” Elrich said.

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