Over the years, the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, a watchdog of local residents dedicated to preserving fashionable Potomac, has discovered that it is about to lose [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]riott Corp. when those giants tried to build "discordant" structures in the community.
So it is with a mixture of disbelief and outrage that the citizens's group has discovered that it is about to lose a major development battle to one if its own past members, who has won county permission to build a large office building smack in the middle of old Potomac Village.
"We are interested in keeping the density down and stopping strip commercial development . . . ," said Sally Canchuger, president of the association. "I don't think Harry Semmes understands what this is all about."
Harry Semmes, the determined builder, is truly one of Potomac's own. He has lived in Potomac since after World War II (when his father moved there to take advantage of the fox hunting); he has long been the master of the prestigious Potomac Hunt Club, and he is part-owner of an 85-acre farm in the area.
At the same time, Semmes' wife Lutie is editor of the Potomac Almanac, the community's monthly newspaper, which has frequently taken editorial stands against high density development in Potomac, an area known for its horse farms, sprawling estates, woods and knolls, and expensive homes.
At issues is Semmes' plan to build a four-story modern office building near the crossroads of Falls and River roads. In the process he's knocked down two 80-year-old structures that many considered landmarks in the old village. And he has found himself is heated debate with some of his friends and neighbors, who believe the construction would lead to high density development in their community.
"You can't get too emotional about business," said Semmes, a husky, gray-haired athletic-looking real estate broker who lives on a five-acre estate on Glen Road.
"They (the citizen's association) are a pain in the neck," he said. "We tried to be nice about this. They asked to see what we wanted to build . . . but now, the heck with it."
The 500-member association is appealing Semmes' building permit with the county board of appeals. The association maintains that the building violates the area's zoning guidelines, which permit construction of no building higher than 2 1/2 stories. The group also says that Semmes' building, a brick structure with large windows and an interior courtyard, will not fit in with the rest of the village.
The village is currently a mixture of structures. Its one modern building, is the Free State Bank. There are two shopping centers, two gas staions and an auto repair shop. An antique shop and a real estate firm, are located in one 80-year-old building. The village also includes the "Happy Pickle" building, an old restaurant that is to be converted into a bank sometime this year.
The Semmes building will stand on the former site of Stombock's Saddlery and the Left Bank Boutique. Both were knocked down earlier this month.
A spokesman for the county department that issued Semmes' building permit maintains that the structure will not violate the county zoning ordinance restricting buildings to 2 1/2 stories. He said the county restriction applies only to the front of a building and Semmes' building, which is to be built on a slope, will be four stories in the rear.
Semmes is not the first Potomac resident responsible for commercial growth within the community's borders.
Richard Eisinger, who lives on a 20-acre farm in Potomac, is building a 37-store shopping center on Falls Road across from the Semmes' building. Called Potomac Promenade, the shopping center will feature high fashion boutiques a pizza parlor and a delicatessen, Eisinger said. The center's 2 1/2 story wood-stucco "country fashion" buildings will be completed next month.
Eisinger said he purposely designed the buidlings of Potomac Promenade so that they conformed to the wishes of the citizens association in both architecture and height.
While the association did not object to Eisinger's plans, it did try - unsuccessfully - to prevent another Potomac resident, George Martin, from building a racket ball club adjacent to Semmes' building on River Road.
Joseph Kitchin, a member of the association opposed to both the Semmes building and the racket ball club, called the club "an abscene intrusion" into the Potomac community because, he said, it will draw a large number of outsiders.
Semmes and the other Potomac developers have the support of village businessmen who want more commercial development in order to attract more customers.
"There are a certain people who want to keep this a sleepy village. But you can't keep that up indefinitely . . . There ought to be enough (businesses) here to make it a one-stop place for shoppers,"said one real estate broker in the area.
Despite the fact that Semmes finds himself at odds with many of his old friends and neighbors, both he and the members of the citizens association maintain that they are all still friends.
"I see him (Semmes) frequently and its always very pleasant," said Art Johnson, a member and former president of the association. "Both he and his wife are good friends of mine. But I think he's making a mistake and I'd behappy to tell him that anywhere."