Development on Old Farm by Gaithersburg Opposed

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Just outside Gaithersburg, off Interstate 270, is a 182-acre parcel filled with grass, broken-limbed trees and a few paint-chipped houses and barns. Crown Farm, as it is known, is one of the last large pieces of undeveloped land in central Montgomery County.

That could all change under a plan by Gaithersburg businessman Aris Mardirossian to turn it into a bustling residential and commercial center with up to 2,250 homes and 320,000 square feet for shops and office buildings.

But with the County Council scheduled to begin considering the proposal Tuesday, some residents and civic groups are gearing up for a fight. They said the development -- east of Sam Eig Highway, south of Fields Road and west of Omega Drive -- would cause school overcrowding and too much traffic.

"These folks have been used to a 180-acre farm in that area," said Jim Humphrey, a Montgomery County Civic Federation official. "Let's make sure this project can be accommodated by the infrastructure before we go approving it."

If approved, the development would include condos, townhouses, single-family homes and high-rises, some as tall as 20 stories. About 400 or 500 of those units would be above stores or offices, maximizing space for parks and pedestrian walkways. Mardirossian, who leads a development team that bought the property from the Crown family over the summer, said he and the builders, who include Los Angeles-based KB Home, plan to run buses from the homes to the nearest Metro station. "It'll be like Connecticut Avenue. A real urbanist design," Mardirossian said.

Mardirossian has asked the city of Gaithersburg, which has its own council and mayor, to annex the property. Because his plan would require rezoning, it must go to the County Council first. County planners and city officials have been scrambling to hammer out the details of what would be one of the city's most significant projects in years.

Last week, the County Council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee -- made up of Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) and Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who chairs the panel -- voted to require that 12.5 percent of the homes be set aside as affordable housing.

Because Crown Farm is in a location designated as a "receiving area" -- or a place where the county encourages development -- Mardirossian ordinarily would be required to pay transferable development rights to a farmer in the agricultural reserve. But the council committee recommended instead that he be exempted in lieu of a $1 million payment to the county's agricultural easement program, a fund for preserving open space.

Because the donation would be much less than what he would probably pay in development rights, Mardirossian has offered to donate 34 acres for a new high school.

"To let a developer off the hook is just what they don't need to do," said Pamela Lindstrom, a Gaithersburg resident who has been vocal in opposing the project.

Silverman estimated that the transferable development rights would cost Mardirossian about $11 million, far below what it would cost to buy land for a school. "If you have a developer who's prepared to give us a high school site for free and save the taxpayers 60 or 70 million dollars, we ought to take the deal," he said.

Praisner said she did not agree with the exemption. "I'm not necessarily opposed to the annexation," she said. "My point is that I think it's moving too fast and there are certainly complexities that need to be worked out."

Opponents say Mardirossian's deep pockets and political connections are driving the project.

Since January 2003, Mardirossian has donated $750 to council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and $500 to Floreen, Board of Elections records show. One of his companies, Aris Mardirossian Inc., donated $2,500 to council Chairman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).

Farm Development Coop, a company Mardirossian manages, donated $4,000 to Silverman. The company gave $2,000 to Floreen and $2,000 to council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), records show.

Mardirossian acknowledged that he and his family have given money to candidates. "They cannot see that I came from Armenia and I created something wonderful from this country and I can express my ideas," he said of his critics.

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