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Growth Of Olney Worries Residents

The Master Plan, Last Revised in '80, Is Up for Review

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page GZ03

In January 1971, shortly after getting married, Diana B. Littlefield moved to Olney because "it was quaint and charming," homes were still inexpensive and homeowners could escape "the sterility, noise and congestion of Wheaton or Aspen Hill," she wrote in a recent letter to the Montgomery County Council.

And while many of her fellow teachers moved to Olney "for the same reasons," she continued, more than 30 years later, "much of the charm is gone."

"Open spaces are rapidly disappearing. The schools are cluttered with temporary classrooms," she wrote. Though "the town center is very convenient and contains many amenities it did not have in the past," residents pay because "traffic is terrible."

Littlefield was urging the County Council to refrain from turning Olney "into the same type of faceless, characterless area that has been created throughout Montgomery County."

Last revised in 1980, the Olney Master Plan is up for review after several decades of rapid growth that is changing the rural flavor of the upcounty area. Council members are scheduled to vote on the growth guide early next year.

Officials also are beginning to evaluate how to manage growth in other upcounty areas, including Damascus.

In Olney, planners say, the key issues are the town center and development along Batchellors Forest Road. But Derick Berlage, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board, said the most controversial aspect of the plan is likely to be a planned residential development on the 32-acre Bowie Mill School site, just off Bowie Mill Road between Cashell and Olney-Laytonsville roads.

"It's a very pretty piece of land," said Olney resident Michael D. Dobbs. In the previous master plan, the area was slated to become a school, but the school system no longer needs it. "It has a creek that runs through it. Parts of it are wooded, and parts of it are rolling and bucolic, and it's a pocket where deer and fox and other animals can have a little safety place."

The concern now, he continued, is how densely the property will be developed -- and how it will look. Houses more closely clustered together than in the rest of Olney are being promoted by planners as being environmentally sound, while many residents are complaining because clusters -- instead of bucolic, large lots -- look ugly.

The proposed master plan supports development of 47 single-family homes and 31 townhouses on the site.

Traffic is another big concern, and many of the approximately 100 individuals and groups who wrote letters to the council said they were concerned about already-crowded roads. An additional 78 single-family and townhomes on the Bowie Mill School site will only exacerbate those worries, they said.

Berlage described the Olney Town Center as "a helter-skelter of smaller shopping malls and individual stores, and it was never properly designed." The proposed master plan hopes to change that, Berlage said, by "convert[ing] a hodgepodge [into] a single town center identity that's walkable and attractive, something they can really be proud of. We'd also like a center, where people can gather, where community events can be held. But unfortunately, there's not a lot of land."

Berlage said the land alongside winding, rural Batchellors Forest Road, which runs from Georgia Avenue into Sandy Spring, is about to be developed, too. Trotters Glen Golf Course is closing, he said, "and owners of that land and others along Batchellors Forest Road intend in the future to develop it."

The Planning Board wants to change zoning for development of the property from one house per one or two acres to, instead, a "rural neighborhood cluster," where homes would be much closer together but technically would be built with one home for every three acres. So, for example, if you had "99 acres, you could build about 33 houses and cluster them in a place that makes sense," Berlage said, keeping the rest of the as land open space.

Environmental and neighborhood groups will argue, he predicts, for something lower -- maybe one house for every five acres.

Review of the Damascus Master Plan also will begin soon, and Berlage said a key issue will be preserving the character of the historic town center.

Maryland Route 27, which goes right through the middle of the historic town, is a major commuter route, "so traffic during rush hour is hideous," Berlage said. "We need to find a way to get traffic through there and still preserve the beauty and historic character."

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