Md. neighbors present case vs. Suburban Hospital expansion

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; B01

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.

In an uncommonly long, detailed memo to the hearing examiner, Montgomery County's people's counsel Martin Klauber has mapped out a proposal that offers Shiman and her neighbors some hope that their objections will be taken seriously.

The document is a rarity for Klauber, who spends many hours trying to bring warring neighborhood factions together, monitoring the more than three dozen neighborhood councils he has helped to establish and offering advice to people who can't afford the time or legal fees to get into a land-use fight.

"The facts and the public interest require balancing the hospital's need for a new, disproportionately large, secondary landscape area and the neighborhood's need to retain an existing, successful buffer," he said, mentioning single-family detached houses, trees and plants "that have been in place since the 1920s and 1930s." Tearing that down, he said, "would have a destructive impact on the stability" of the neighborhood.

He proposed that the hospital be barred from tearing down the houses and that it stop buying houses. He also suggested that the hospital and the neighbors get together to devise a transportation plan, see how it works and review it in a few years to see whether cut-through traffic is occurring and whether it is harming the neighborhood.

Hospital concessions

Hospital Vice President Leslie Ford Weber, a Bethesda resident, said the hospital has made some changes to its original plans, based on recommendations from the county's planning agency. The hospital adopted a new design for a parking garage that lopped off a story and agreed to eliminate some surface parking.

"We would agree with the neighborhood that it was a very thorough process," she said. It was the hospital's burden to prove that what it proposed should be approved, and thus it needed the help of its experts to make that case, she said. "We put forth the witnesses required as part of our burden of proof," she said.

Added to that were the challenges and counterproposals from the neighborhood group and the need for the hospital's experts to respond to the challenges, "and that added time," she said. As for the significance of Klauber's memo, she was uncertain.

For now, the hospital, like the community, is waiting to see what happens next.

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