Path considered for highway would slice through retreat property

Potential routes for the Midcounty Highway could disturb the serenity of Jim Hall's Daysprings Retreat Center.
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010

Most weekends, about 20 people gather at Dayspring Silent Retreat Center from Washington area churches, temples and other organizations to pray and meditate, hoping to connect with God by quieting their minds amid nature.

But those who espouse the spirituality of silence are speaking up. That's because the retreat center's 206 acres sit in one of the alignments being considered for a four-lane road east of Interstate 270. Montgomery County transportation officials said the six-mile extension of Midcounty Highway would be designed to relieve the traffic jams that followed the development between Gaithersburg, Clarksburg and Damascus.

One of 11 proposed routes would cut through the retreat center's property in Germantown. The road would run between the lodge where gatherings are held and the dense woods and stream valley where retreat participants have walked in quiet reflection since 1953. Another proposal would put the road just beyond the center's property line but close enough to create a noisy distraction, the center's leaders said.

Community concerns about new roads bringing traffic noise are common. But rarely does a property's use -- a quest for no sound whatsoever -- bump up so jarringly against a road-building plan.

"The exterior silence helps us move into interior silence," said Nat Reid, the center's director. "It's a touchstone we connect with and operate out of when we're in the busy world."

The nonprofit retreat center is operated by the nondenominational Dayspring Church, an affiliate of the Washington-based Church of the Saviour, its leaders said. They said it is one of the largest retreat centers in the Washington area and one of the few to offer only silent retreats. Previous guests have included nuns from the order founded by Mother Teresa and Columbia founder James Rouse, leaders said.

In addition to shattering the silence, the center's leaders said, a new road would destroy thick woods and a stream valley that both provide dwindling animal and plant habitat. The road's construction money should be spent instead on improving transit, they said.

Montgomery transportation officials said their study, begun in 2004, is in its early stages. It will probably take 10 to 15 years for the county to reach a consensus on a route and find the money to build it, said Sogand Seirafi, Montgomery's chief of transportation planning and design.

The issue is heating up now because county transportation planners last month recommended cutting their list of routes under consideration from 11 to six.

The county has recommended keeping both alignments that would affect the retreat center for more study. State and federal environmental agencies must agree to the county's recommendations before any routes can be dropped, Seirafi said. That final decision is expected by late fall. The center's leaders are inviting politicians and officials from state and federal environmental agencies to tour the grounds, saying they want the decision makers to see what's at stake.

Seirafi said the county needs another north-south road to accommodate the crush of traffic that planners knew would follow as subdivisions and shopping centers began popping up in northern Montgomery. Roads such as Route 355 and I- 270 remain jammed much of the day from traffic that came with the development that has already occurred. The development proceeded assuming that the road, which has been in the county's master plan since the 1960s, would one day be built, Seirafi said.

If a route through or near the retreat center were chosen, she said, sound walls and landscaping could help shield Dayspring from passing vehicles. The alignment cutting through the retreat center was chosen for study because it would reduce the impact to wetlands, a stream valley park and homes on Brink Road. The master plan alignment that skirts the center's property also would avoid Brink Road homes and reduce the impact on a creek crossing, Seirafi said.

"I understand they're upset and worried, so when we get into the detailed study, we'll listen to them," Seirafi said of the retreat center's leaders. "I'm not saying everyone ends up happy, but we try our best to accommodate people. It's difficult to build a new road without having any impacts to anything."

Seirafi said she could not estimate the road's construction costs until detailed designs were done.

County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said that 40,000 residents in Clarksburg need the new road but that building it through Dayspring doesn't sound like a practical option that would win approval.

"I can't imagine anyone saying, 'Ah, let's put it through the middle of a retreat,' " Knapp said.

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