The Hechinger Co. slogan, "the world's most unusual lumberyard," has in some ways come to haunt the hardware giant as company officials make plans to open a store in Bethesda.
Hechinger has been forced to scale down its plans for a 39,000-square-foot store at 5225 River Rd. because of the persistence of a group of nearby residents who fear that the store would generate massive traffic tie-ups on the already congested artery.
Last year, Hechinger applied as a hardware store to the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection and won permission to renovate the old Brunswick River Bowl bowling alley, which closed in spring 1986.
Residents of the Kenwood subdivision oppose the project and claim that the nature of Hechinger's business is not similar to a neighborhood hardware store, which zoning there allows, but is more like a lumber or building supply store, which is not a permitted use of the land.
In addition, the battle has been broadened to include both a bitter public confrontation between two powerful county agencies dealing with land use and residents' scrutiny of the property that finally led Hechinger to seal off part of the building so that its square footage would be consistent with the available parking.
"The Kenwood people are not as friendly as we would have hoped. But I think there is a hostility to any development there," said Roger Wright, Hechinger's vice president for real estate and development.
"The traffic level on River Road is what it is. We cannot be blamed for that."
Wright said the "prototype" Hechinger store is much larger than the one planned for River Road.
The one near Montgomery Mall is 60,000 square feet and has an additional 20,000 to 25,000 square feet for its garden shop, he said.
But the Kenwood Citizens Association, intending to hold Hechinger accountable to its motto, hired attorney Norman Knopf to appeal the permit to the county Board of Appeals, which rules on variances and special exceptions to zoning laws.
After two postponements of the appeal since January, the case comes up Monday at 9 a.m. at the County Council building.
Pat Baptiste, who belongs to an umbrella civic group of which Kenwood is a member, said, "The traffic would be unbelievable.
"And on Sundays, when we have had a relief from some traffic, everyone would be coming from all over to Hechinger's."
Environmental protection director John L. Menke said that, since 1970, several Hechinger stores have been built "as hardware stores" and that "no one is trying to slip in a new interpretation of zoning law."
Knopf, who lives near River Road, said that Kenwood residents believe that the environmental protection department should not have granted the permit because the area was rezoned from industrial use five years ago, specifically to preclude a business of the nature and volume of Hechinger.
But perhaps the most debated aspect of the plan involves parking spaces.
Wright said that a few months ago, after the residents had questioned several other aspects of the project, the civic association went out to the parking lot and measured the spaces.
They found that the amount of parking space did not meet county requirements for the planned amount of floor space. This led to a revision to the permit, which Wright said allows Hechinger to seal off 6,000 square feet of floor space.
"While it sounds unusual, there are precedents around the county," Menke said. "It simply reduces the floor space that would generate the extra traffic."
The controversy has raised challenges to the process by which the department of environmental protection issues its permits.
Knopf maintains that the department failed to comply with state law because the permit application was not submitted for consideration to the county planning board, which has authority to approve subdivision, site and master development plans.
Menke said he did not know whether the application was formally submitted to the board, "but they have commented on it."
Menke said that with the 30,000 building permits that his department handles each year, "there are cases that just don't make it over there."
Planning board Chairman Norman Christeller said the matter never came to the planning board formally, but he and his staff recommended against approval of the permit for the same reasons that the residents are opposing it.
He said he has been attempting to speak before the Board of Appeals on behalf of the residents but has been unsuccessful, in part because the law is not clear about allowing parties other than those directly involved in an appeal to speak.
Although Christeller said that an assistant county attorney had recommended that Christeller not be allowed to speak, this time he believes that he "may be permitted" after the two sides have presented their cases.
Board of Appeals Chairman Thomas Israel declined to comment on whether Christeller would be allowed to speak.