Montgomery Planners Push Through Bethesda Project Approval to Beat Moratorium

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

Montgomery County planners pushed through the approval yesterday for a 497-unit apartment building in downtown Bethesda before a residential development moratorium takes effect, despite concerns about the building's design and its potential to add students to crowded schools.

Board members said their biggest concern was not the looming moratorium but whether the 18-story apartment building at Rugby and Woodmont avenues and a nearby commercial office building at Wisconsin Avenue and Battery Lane would be uninviting bulky structures that would do little to enhance street life in Bethesda's quiet Woodmont Triangle.

They voted 3 to 2 for the project, with supporters saying they had reservations about the design but felt that they had to take action to prevent the proposal from being significantly delayed by the moratorium, which starts Wednesday.

The project was originally scheduled to go before the board next month. But the company asked the Planning Board to accelerate the process so it would not get caught in the moratorium, which is required by Montgomery's growth management law when school enrollment reaches a specific tipping point.

The board was legally mandated to approve the moratorium this month because the school system predicts substantial crowding in Bethesda, Clarksburg and part of Germantown in five years unless classroom space is built. The apartments are projected to add 19 elementary-age students, 18 middle school students and 15 high school students.

Board members Amy Presley and Jean Cryor said yesterday that they're concerned about adding more students. Cryor ultimately voted for the plan; Presley voted against it.

"While there is no moratorium yet, I think we have a responsibility to look at what our capacities are," Presley said.

Remy Esquenet, the parent of a rising first-grader at Bethesda Elementary School, said that the school is too crowded but added that he could accept more development in the area if a solution could be found.

He said the school has little land to build an addition: "If they allocate dollars to do something that cannot be done, that does not solve the problem."

Board member Joseph Alfandre, who voted against it, said he thought that the moratorium, due to take effect July 1, would be lifted. "I think we are going to solve the moratorium. We have to," he said.

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, who supported the project along with Cryor and Vice Chairman John Robinson, spent much of the almost five-hour debate prodding Donohoe Development's architects and attorney to give him good reasons to approve the measure despite design flaws.

He had agreed to put the proposal on the board's agenda to help speed it through before the moratorium. Delay, he said, "is an extraordinary waste of time when we are close and it's possible . . . to meet our conditions. . . . We can still get a good project."

"It is going to need an awful lot of work to make it better," Cryor said. "I am very concerned about the way it looks. I also know what the moratorium means."

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