Second hearing sought for changes to government building projects

By Cody Calamaio
The Gazette
Thursday, July 1, 2010; GZ17

The modification of a proposed -- and unpopular -- retaining wall at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac might lead the county's Park and Planning Department and Montgomery County public schools to alter construction policies for government projects.

In the wake of a dispute between residents and school officials that resulted from the wall's planning, County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) of Potomac is calling for changes to the mandatory referral process to require a second hearing before the Planning Board for major changes to any approved government construction plan.

"To me, this is a way in which the County Council can provide an extra layer of protection," Berliner said of an amendment he is suggesting the Planning Board consider. "Combined with the school system's internal changes, my hope is that no community will ever endure this again going forward."

The situation began in May, when construction of an 11-foot high retaining wall was started as part of a $32 million school modernization. School officials said the wall was necessary because of underground storm-water management pipes and the school's expansion.

Residents balked, however, saying that public design meetings on the project in 2008 and last year had shown the school at street level and no wall. Residents said they didn't want the high wall because of accessibility concerns, potential for graffiti, lack of visibility of the school from the street and the institutional look of the building. Because of the outcry, officials stopped construction of the wall May 17.

Residents and school officials reached a compromise June 16, when they agreed to build a two-level tiered wall, instead of the originally proposed wall. The compromise was hammered out during a design meeting at Bells Mill Elementary School attended by school officials and members of the County Council.

"First of all, there are no excuses for this, so I apologize to you all for this," council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) of Garrett Park told residents at the meeting. "You shouldn't have been surprised, and this is just plain wrong. This should have been done a long time ago, so obviously something is broken and we hope to fix it."

Five options to modify the existing wall were narrowed to the two that residents helped design at a June 1 meeting with James Song, director of the school system's construction division. Residents voted on the simpler two-tier design.

The partially completed wall on Gainsborough Road will be cut to about 3 feet, and a second wall, placed 3 feet behind the first, will rise to the necessary 11-foot elevation of the school, Song said. Landscaping will be added between the walls to improve the appearance.

Requiring a second review before the Planning Board for construction projects undergoing changes will provide an opportunity for public forum, Berliner said. The County Council approves the work program and budget for the Planning Department and considers the Planning Board's recommendations on zoning issues. The Board of Education has final approval on recommendations the Planning Board makes on school projects.

A similar requirement for a second review has been in place for private sector construction projects for 30 years, said John Carter, the Planning Department's urban design chief. Government construction projects undergoing changes often voluntarily come to the board for advice, Carter said, but Berliner's proposal would make a second review mandatory.

The amendment would need to be approved by the Planning Board, and Carter said he hopes to present the change in September.

Specifics on landscaping, building materials and other tweaks will be discussed in a future public meeting, Song said. There is no cost estimate for the changes.

"It's a win-win for everybody," said Phil Cantor, president of Fox Hills Civic Association, who helped design the modifications. "As bad as it was two months ago, I think maybe it'll be better in the long run."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company