County Scrambles to Find Space for School Buses to Make Way for Shady Grove Redevelopment

County Scrambles to Find Space for School Buses to Make Way for Shady Grove Redevelopment

Recent controversy over interim bus depot in Rockville stems from county's attempts at finding replacement sites

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MCPS buses at its Shady Grove Depot

Aaron Kraut

As community members and elected officials made clear their opposition Wednesday night to parking 100 county school buses on a Carver Educational Services Center parking lot, Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton announced she also opposed the county’s plans for another interim bus depot nearby.

“I would ask all of us to stop allowing Rockville neighborhoods to be pitted against each other and for all of us to stand together,” Newton said of the county’s plan to park about 100 school buses at 1000 Westmore Ave., a parcel the county recently bought in a light industrial area east of Rockville Pike and adjacent to the residential Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The opposition to parking buses at the Carver and Westmore sites on the basis that the buses will create more traffic, noise and pollution is the latest wrinkle in the county’s struggle to find replacement space for the more than 400 buses now parked nightly at the Shady Grove Depot on Crabbs Branch Way.

In 2014, the county entered into an agreement to sell that land, along with the adjacent land used by 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, the developers can build up to 345 townhomes, 344 apartment units, a new park and prepare a new elementary school site on those 45 acres near the Shady Grove Metro station.

But for the deal to move forward, the county must vacate the Shady Grove Bus Depot. So far, no permanent replacement site has been found and not enough interim sites have been identified to accommodate the buses.

“We’ve obviously been looking for a permanent [replacement] site for a long period of time,” county spokesperson Patrick Lacefield said. “We’ve had a long list of places that didn’t work either because the sites themselves weren’t quite right or because communities rejected the idea.”

He pointed to the plan to place a permanent replacement bus depot at the closed Gude landfill in Derwood, an idea the county rejected in 2009 after a group of area residents raised concerns about apparent contamination from the 1960s-era dump.

The school system looked at parking buses at certain schools, and found 10 of the county’s 25 high schools have space suitable for parking a total of 82 buses. But that possibility also creates operational challenges for bus maintenance and could take up parking spaces for students and staff at those schools.

Lacefield said that even if the Carver site were deemed a good fit for an interim bus depot, the Westmore Avenue site was acceptable and the county was able to put about 50 school buses and maintenance equipment at its new Ride On bus depot near I-370, the county would still need to find interim or permanent space for more than 200 buses relocated from the Shady Grove Depot.

“I was on the County Council when we passed, I’m putting it into air quotes here, the award-winning Shady Grove [Sector] Plan, and I said at the time…’Look, you can’t just take all these undesirable uses that were put here at what at the time was a pretty remote area and just say we’ll put them somewhere,” County Council member George Leventhal said during the Wednesday meeting on the Carver bus depot proposal. “You have to know where ‘somewhere’ is. If you just put them somewhere else, that’s not the same thing as planning.”

Leventhal said he’s in favor of smart growth, but compared the sale of county-owned land in County Executive Ike Leggett’s Smart Growth Initiative to “when you go to the baseball game and they’ve got the baseball under the cap and then the cap starts moving around and then you try to figure out where the baseball is.”

Leventhal and council members Sidney Katz and Marc Elrich, the three who opposed the Carver interim bus depot Wednesday night, sent a memo to other council members Friday asking that a detailed discussion of the future of the county’s land in Shady Grove be put on the council’s agenda in June.

In November, the council approved a resolution to extend until December 2016 the deadline to consider a Declaration of No Further Need for the Shady Grove site. If approved, the move would allow the county to transfer the land to the two developers.

“In recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that there is neither an interim nor a permanent plan for the relocation of more than 400 buses currently located at the Shady Grove Depot,” the memo said. “Further, lack of clarity over the complicated practical and timing elements of the relocation process has many County residents—especially those in the impacted neighborhoods—feeling angry and confused.”

The three council members also asked the school system to “cease any and all activity” related to the interim bus depot proposal at the Carver site.

Lacefield said further delaying the Declaration of No Further Need for the Shady Grove site could put the initiative in jeopardy, though he also said the county doesn’t have a specific timeline for finding interim bus depot sites.

“That has pretty serious consequences because under the master plan approved by the council, there’s not only the development that goes on there, there’s a school site, there’s Jeremiah Park,” Lacefield said Thursday. “We could even face legal liability from the people who develop the site, plus it’s basically making sure housing units and economic development don’t happen in that area. The consequences for not moving the buses is not status quo. There’s a cost to that as well.”

Elrich leveled some of his criticism Wednesday at the county’s deal with the Shady Grove developers, noting it required the developers to find other locations to park the Shady Grove buses.

Lacefield said LCOR and NVR were required to suggest a list of alternative sites, per the terms of the county’s request for proposals. He said many of the sites they suggested were already considered by the county and determined not to work because of neighborhood impact or operational factors. The Westmore Avenue site was one suggested by the developers that the county believes can work.

Last June, the council approved a $27 million capital budget item to buy and develop interim bus depot replacement sites. Some of that money was used to acquire the Westmore Avenue site, according to an April memo from Department of General Services Deputy Director Greg Ossont.

Unlike the Carver site, which if it moves forward would require review from three City of Rockville commissions, the Westmore Avenue land sits just outside the city.

Lacefield said Thursday it’s possible the county would abandon its request for placing buses at the Carver site if the school system’s traffic and engineering studies show it would negatively impact nearby residents.

“If there’s a study, then we’ll know what the pros and cons are,” Lacefield said. “It may well be that you do the study and the people who object have their position supported by the study, or it may well be that the study shows the fears are largely unfounded.”

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