Md. neighbors present case vs. Suburban Hospital expansion

Amy Shiman pores over documents she has amassed as the leader of a group opposed to a Suburban Hospital expansion plan.
Amy Shiman pores over documents she has amassed as the leader of a group opposed to a Suburban Hospital expansion plan. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In this corner, the hospital's experts: The traffic engineer. The appraiser. The landscape architect. The engineer who measures noise. The land planner. The building architect. Nine in all who aided one of Montgomery County's leading land-use lawyers in a record-setting 34 days of hearings over a year and a half on Suburban Hospital's proposed $230 million expansion.

Along with the experts came 446 exhibits, many of them hospital diagrams, reports and schematics that its attorneys relied on to illustrate what the hospital hopes to build on its property on Old Georgetown Road near downtown Bethesda. The goal is to modernize facilities at the 65-year-old hospital and enable it to capitalize on its proximity to the National Institutes of Health across the street.

In the other corner: The neighbors' expert, a retiree briefly pressed into service to discuss urban planning.

Late last year and earlier this year, a handful of neighbors working with one lawyer scoured libraries, county documents and hospital architecture rules; took photographs; tried to translate the Bethesda master plan into readable English; pressed neighbors to contribute money; and otherwise tried to accomplish, without compensation, what the hospital's experts are trained and paid to do.

"It has been staggering," said Amy Shiman, a leader of a neighborhood group that favors hospital expansion but opposes the proposed design, which includes a plan to tear down 23 houses, about a 10th of the neighborhood.

In addition to demolishing homes, the hospital wants to add parking spaces, single-patient rooms, surgical suites and physicians' offices. To accomplish this, the houses would have to go and a public street would have to be closed, the hospital says. The demolition and road closure would add room for open space in the form of a meditation garden.

Francoise Carrier, a county hearing examiner, is reviewing the mounds of material and is expected to make a recommendation early next year to the county's Board of Appeals. Her determination will carry substantial weight, but there are more steps along the way before shovels hit dirt.

Possible headway

The experience of Shiman and her fellow activists from the Huntington Terrace neighborhood is far from unique. Neighborhood land-use battles often turn into marathons that pit neighbor against neighbor and require residents who join the battle to absorb the arcana of land-use law so they can try to compete with well-compensated, highly experienced lawyers and the deep-pocket institutions they represent.

Many know, as one local private school headmistress in Montgomery famously said during a dispute several years ago, that those with a lot of money can usually wait out a battle longer than those with less. And many community groups, staring at the potential for massive legal bills and countless hours of volunteer time, give up before the first legal brief is filed.

"If you had told me more than a year ago that I would have been spending 15 to 20 hours a week on this, I would have laughed at you," Shiman said recently as she surveyed her stuffed basement file cabinet and the fax machine that a neighbor had given her to try to keep thousands of pieces of paper organized. "My husband keeps saying, 'When are you going to get a paying job?' "

Shiman worked in real estate finance before becoming an at-home mother and turning her dining room into the boiler room for the group's efforts to get the hospital to modify its plans.

Although Suburban, acquired this year by Johns Hopkins Medicine, has rallied substantial support from residents, there are signs that the Huntington Terrace group might have made some headway.

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