The 70 or so protesters from Bethesda’s Westbard community who gathered at the steps of the Montgomery County Council building last week were in no mood to hear from their council representative, Roger Berliner.
“I come here, quite frankly, not because I share your point of view, because I do not. And I’m sorry with respect to that,” Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said, triggering a cascade of boos and jeers.
“You don’t represent us,” a few yelled.
“It’s corruption! This is corruption!” cried one woman.
They were drawn to Rockville by the prospect of as many as 1,200 new townhouses and high-rise apartments in their southwest Montgomery neighborhood, about a mile from the District line. It is part of a plan by developer Equity One, which bought the 1960s-vintage Westwood Shopping Center and some surrounding properties in early 2014. The company wants to modernize the shopping strip, converting it into a town center with housing, dining and civic space.
The group, called Save Westbard, says the project will burden crowded schools and roads. They charge that Equity One and the county have colluded to impose an unwanted urban vision on a place they had expected to remain traditionally suburban. The council is expected to give final approval to the plan Tuesday.
Berliner tried to continue. “I believe this plan will enhance the community. I believe . . .” As the boos rose up again, he retreated to the council office building.
Disputes pitting residential neighborhoods against government and developers flare regularly in Montgomery, Maryland’s largest and wealthiest county.
But the Westbard sector plan — the 30-year land-use blueprint that includes the Westwood project — has tapped new depths of anger and resentment. To some in the community, it’s a local manifestation of the mean-spiritedness and incivility on display in the nation’s presidential contest.
“There’s a little bit of the Trumpification of America — that it’s okay to be mean and nasty to each other,” said Timothy Tutt, senior minister at the Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ, where supporters and opponents worship. Tutt said he supports the project because it will increase affordable housing in an area that has next to none.
Berliner, who led a council effort to cut the size of the Equity One project nearly in half, said it has been the worst experience of his nine-year council career.
“We’re living in an age where there’s no trust of any aspect of government,” he said. “The vitriol that has been expressed is the most I’ve ever experienced.”
The turmoil in Westbard is a reaction to the transition underway in other parts of Montgomery and communities across the country: from sprawling, car-dependent suburbs covered with asphalt parking lots to more densely populated town centers where people drive less, walk and bike more, and perhaps live closer to where they work.
Montgomery County planners and lawmakers embraced the approach in a 2014 overhaul of the zoning laws. Known variously as “new urbanism,” “smart growth,” “infill” or “transit oriented development” — it is intended to contain sprawl, cut the use of fossil fuels and attract an emerging generation of millennials who will be paying most of the taxes for the next 30 to 40 years.
Westbard opponents said they welcome a modernized shopping center. But with downtown Bethesda and Friendship Heights two miles away, they’re not interested in the rest of it.
“Renovate? Upgrade? These are great things. No one is prepared for urbanization,” said Cara McVie, who lives in the Springfield neighborhood near the shopping center.
“Essentially they want to build downtown Bethesda,” said Jeanne Allen, a leader of Save Westbard.
Michael Berfield, executive vice president of Equity One, said he is confident that Allen’s is a minority view.
“I’ve never done anything like this where I’ve gotten 100 percent support,” Berfield said.
The plan has produced rifts in Westbard-area communities such as Sumner, Somerset, Springfield and Kenwood. An umbrella group of leaders from 19 neighborhood associations, the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, has endorsed the downsized version of the project.
But Save Westbard, which claims to represent 70 percent of households in the area, says it is still an unwarranted “density dump.” It wants to retain the current zoning, which would allow an additional number of houses, but far fewer than the revised plan. Opponents assert that the Friendship Heights committee, active for more than 30 years, is out of touch and captive to a regulatory process controlled by developers.
The group marched through the shopping center on successive days last month. On social media it has unveiled “The Westbard Papers,” the fruits of a public-records request with emails between planners and attorneys for Equity One. While they show nothing improper, they do depict the hand-in-glove closeness with which land-use attorneys and county planning staff sometimes operate. Those same attorneys are regular contributors to campaigns of County Council members.
State campaign finance records show that since 2009, Berliner has accepted $1,850 from Barbara Sears, an attorney for Equity One. They also list $2,250 from Robert Brewer, who represents Capital Properties, which wants to put another high-rise near Park Bethesda, the apartment building it owns on Westbard Avenue. The donations are a fraction of the $421,000 Berliner raised during that period.
“We are not doing this because Equity One wants it,” Berliner said in an open letter to the Westbard community last month. “We are doing this because we believe that Equity One’s investment in our community, on this vastly reduced scale, will benefit our community.”
Save Westbard has pounded Berliner. Allen, a leader of the group, suggested in a Facebook post last week that Berliner’s recent visits to Cuba and China as part of a county delegation for development have influenced his anti-suburban thinking.
“Cultures where people are not packed on top of one another have longer and higher quality of life,” wrote Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit that promotes charter schools and other market-based approaches to education. She was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates in 2010.
“Not only that, suburbs breed generous people,” she said. “They have community meetings and fundraisers in their homes (on streets where people can park) . . . support families in need (like when a parent is ill), using their car (that awful invention).”
Veteran neighborhood activists said Save Westbard’s all-or-nothing stance is unproductive.
“Just a group of naive activists,” said Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin. “Johnny-come latelys with unrealistic expectations.” He said most of the communities are “very pleased” with Berliner’s revisions.
County officials said Equity One will give the area new parks and tree cover and, over time, restoration of Willett Branch, a stream flowing through the heart of the Westbard site.
The council’s vote Tuesday will end only the latest chapter in the debate over urbanization. Later this year, it will take up plans for development in downtown Bethesda and Lyttonsville, a community west of Silver Spring along the route of the Purple Line that has begun construction.