His 13-acre car lot, an impressive expanse of flash, chrome and white Corvettes with red leather interior, has been a 30-year fixture at the corner of Route 29 and Briggs Chaney Road, and Robert Fogarty says he'll be there for years to come.
But as local and state officials push ahead with plans to build the intercounty connector, a major highway across central Montgomery County, developers are starting to look at nearby businesses such as Fogarty's and the Dutch Country Farmers Market in Burtonsville or the Sears store in the White Oak Shopping Center a little farther down the road, and saying that it's only a matter of time before the dominoes start to fall.
When highways expand, money follows. If this road is built, many of the businesses along its route could be bought up or crowded out by an explosion of much bigger development.
"At some point some of the kids hit that point where they'd rather look at the checkbook than run the business," said Stewart Greenebaum, a major developer in the area who said sweeping away the car lot would allow a mixed-use development. "The lure of being able to sell when the price is right, that's what makes the world go around."
Montgomery officials say the intercounty connector is not designed to prompt new development. They've promised a strict policy of not rezoning any land along the proposed highway, which would cut through an area where much of the land has already been built up, mostly with houses.
But a close look at one narrow strip in the eastern part of Montgomery, along Route 29, reveals the road's potential to greatly intensify development, planting the seeds along one suburban highway of what could over time become a new urban corridor.
Based on current zoning, 10 commercially zoned parcels could support nearly 10 million additional square feet of office, retail or housing, from Zimmerman's Hardware store in Burtonsville, which could only add a building the size of two tennis courts on its property, to the WesTech Business Park near the Prince George's County line, which could add an office building the size of eight football fields stacked on top of each other, according to zoning records, local developers, planners and land use lawyers.
That's about as much space as is added in Montgomery County in three years, according to real estate research firm Delta Associates.
The development would not follow all at once. But if history is a guide, analysts say, the road network planned in Montgomery would put much of that land under pressure to be developed to its most intense use -- just as early development in Silver Spring and the District forced businesses like Fogarty's out to the suburbs in the first place. Fogarty's father was one of the first car dealers in the area to move from downtown to the suburbs. His dealership is one of six in the Auto Sales Park at Route 29 and Briggs Chaney Road, across from a strip mall that includes a Safeway, a Ross store, a deli and a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant.
"The ICC . . . will make what has been a suburban community into more of an environment that's desirable for office, residential and retail," said Jon Eisen, a Bethesda consultant to major developers in the area.
Based on the existing zoning, developers say the area could draw as much as $500 million of investment in coming years, as it diverts traffic from the Capital Beltway and makes it possible for people who live in Rockville or Baltimore to quickly zip to a job in White Oak -- instead of winding through narrow roads or braving the Beltway. It also could plant thousands of new workers along the six-mile strip from Burtonsville to White Oak along Route 29.
"The whole northern Route 29 area has been off the map because it's so hard to get to the main arteries, but with the ICC and major interchanges intersecting with it, you're going to make it a place for office development because many of these companies already have employees that are living in Columbia and Silver Spring," said Jack McShea, a senior managing director of a company that leases office space to companies.
The connector has been talked about for three decades, but it has been met with environmental concerns, political obstacles and neighborhood opposition; it still has not received final approval.
Although Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has said he preferred a route that cuts through central Montgomery, the estimated $2 billion project still must go through several hurdles before it becomes a reality. If approval is received, construction on the roadway is expected to begin in fall 2006 and be done in 2008 or 2010.
But it has already got people thinking, even shaping some decisions.
Tenants in the White Oak Shopping Center just off Route 29 at New Hampshire are hoping their landlord, closely held Saul Centers Inc., will bring in bigger-named stores once more traffic comes through.
Now there's a discount shoe place, an Indian restaurant, a uniform store, Blockbuster movie rental store, a Giant grocery store and a Sears in the strip, which sits on land that's worth an estimated $24 million, according to tax assessments.
Samer Sbitan, who runs a pizza and sub shop in the White Oak Shopping Center, said he could use more business.
"We'll have 8,000 FDA employees coming in here by 2010 and we hope that with them and the new roads we'll have more people coming into the area," Sbitan said. David Claure, who recently opened a Mexican restaurant next door to Sbitan's pizza stand, nodded in agreement.
Greenebaum, a developer, said the Auto Sales Park, where Fogarty and others sell cars, could be turned into a development with five-story office buildings, condominiums and stores, including a dry cleaner's, coffee shop, or Barnes & Noble bookstore.
John Shooshan, another developer in the area, said the connector will "open up some of the north, south corridors" like Route 29 for development.
"That intersection of Briggs Chaney Road and Route 29 is fertile ground," Shooshan said. "You could see some large home builders coming in there and putting in garden-style condos on those big parcels of land -- if you can get to them with a viable option."
That's a far cry from the hodgepodge of strip centers that now line the road.
Change is already starting.
Chris Jones, who owns the 43-year-old Burtonsville Shopping Center at the corner of Route 29 and Route 198, got approval last week from zoning officials to add about 200,000 square feet of shops, offices and restaurants.
Although he can build almost another 2 million square feet on the 27-acre parcel -- if he put in a garage and built multi-story buildings -- Jones is cautious, saying he's more likely to top out his development at about 200,000 and is waiting to do that "until we really have clarity of the ICC being built." He has a drugstore, coffee shop, county-run liquor store and a farmers market in his strip center now.
At the intersection near his shopping center sits a Bedding Barn that sells mattresses, a McDonald's, a hardware store and another strip mall with a Giant grocery store in it.
"You had a country crossroads here back in the '60s and it grew into a suburban crossroads and now they've taken away the crossroads," Jones said. "What the ICC is doing for us is that people are beginning to pay attention to developing in the eastern side of the county. This area needs to go through a change. We're going to see evidence of that over time."
But Jones and the customers who come to the Dutch Country Farmers Market, which is run by Amish and Mennonites from Pennsylvania three days a week, don't want to see the market go even if he does succeed in getting national chains to come into the center.
The market, between a self-service post office and a hair salon, draws retirees and construction workers for home fries, sausage and scrambled eggs for breakfast and nearby office workers dropping in for the $3.10 cheeseburger with chips and a pickle special at lunchtime. About half a dozen vendors sell items including honey, lemon tortes, apple fritters, slabs of bacon, stuffed pork chops, turnips, watermelons, apples, hot pretzels and fudge.
"We're a destination," said David Fisher, who helped start the market and is one of its managers. "People don't just drive by and say, 'Oh look there's a farmers market,' and stop. They leave their house knowing they want to come here."
Would they want to be a tenant beside a larger box store in the center, if one came?
"Sure, we'd come back," Fisher said.
Sam Beiler, an Amish man who helped Fisher start the market and is a co-manager, added: "That is, if we could afford to be here.
"We're a unique store," Beiler said. "You can't find a store like this in every little corner. We got fresh quality produce and meats and people these days are health conscious. That's what they're looking for."
Dorothy Renner, 77, and her friend, Marian Fox, 81, shop about once a week at the market. Both have lived in Burtonsville for much of their lives -- Fox lives in the house that Renner grew up in barely a mile away.
"We've already seen a lot of development," Renner said. "I didn't want it, but they call it progress."
The Zimmerman family has run a hardware store across Route 29 from the farmers market for two decades, ever since moving from downtown Silver Spring. In the last few years, they've had to sell some of their six-acre parcel to make way for a bigger interchange at Route 29 and Route 198.
Ron Zimmerman, who runs the store with his brothers, said he is concerned that increased development of such parcels like Jones's could bring competition that would hurt his business and possibly make the area too congested.
"Why should one person come in and get [approval] for a big project just because he owns it and become a multi-millionaire overnight?" Zimmerman asked.
Yet some landowners in the Auto Sales Park, a few miles away from Zimmerman's, are watching and waiting to see what offers they'll get. They've gotten none so far. But land experts say that as more roads make access easier to the eastern part of the county, the land values will outweigh the car dealerships that sit on them now.
"If the ICC goes through, there's going to be thousands of cars a day that will go by here," said Fogarty, the owner of Sport Automotive Chevy Jeep, one of the larger dealers in the park. "I would think it will enhance the values of all of our properties out here. It will be a boon for the whole area."
His father was one of the first car dealers to move from the District to the park on Route 29 in 1968. "This was the end of the world in 1968," said Fogarty whose dealership now sells about 6,000 cars a year. But for now, Fogarty shrugs at the idea of selling. "I don't want to go anywhere," he said. "I'm happy here."
But another car dealer, Rick Macannany, said "everything's for sale at a price," somewhat jokingly. Like Fogarty, his father's dealership was squeezed out by development from downtown Silver Spring to the large lot on Route 29.
"What are you going to do if you sell? Sit around and be loaded?"