Cyclists and joggers on the Capital Crescent Trail first noticed a problem last fall, when a concrete wall suddenly appeared smack against the wooded recreational path as it enters downtown Bethesda.
The wall, built as part of a construction project at the adjacent Ourisman Honda dealership, wasn’t just ugly, trail users said. It loomed over people and looked too close, as if the auto business had begun building it on the publicly owned trail’s shoulder.
“It seemed obvious to anyone who looked at it,” said Bethesda resident Katya Marin, who reported the wall to county officials after spotting it during a Saturday run in October.
Ourisman recently tore down the wall, but the fight over the dealership’s encroachment into a county easement — dealership officials say they did it by mistake — has raged on as five steel columns supporting a recently expanded parking garage remain. Montgomery County and Ourisman agree that the columns are about a foot inside the easement on Ourisman’s property.
Talks to reach an out-of-court settlement are underway, with both sides saying they want to avoid a costly, years-long legal battle.
“I think both parties realize this could be a nasty, long fight with nobody happy at the end,” said Ourisman attorney Robby Brewer.
A temporary chain-link fence left in place of the wall to shield the construction remains up against the trail, at the heart of one of Montgomery County’s most bikeable and walkable communities. Trail users say the area is the busiest and most dangerous choke point of the trail, frequently requiring cyclists and walkers to dodge one another.
The case has sparked strong emotions in a rapidly urbanizing suburb where some residents say they feel under siege by the pace of development and lack of public green space. It has also pitted some in the community against the dealership, a 30-year-old Bethesda landmark.
“Part of it is a legal matter, but part of it is the expectation that Ourisman will be a good neighbor,” said Marin, who follows local development issues. “To let them violate the spirit of the crown jewel of Bethesda like this is just too much to take.”
Darrell Kelso, a surveyor and frequent trail cyclist, stormed out of a recent public meeting that drew about 50 residents and trail users wanting to hear Ourisman’s latest offer for a legal settlement. The proposal would allow the garage to remain in exchange for Ourisman improving the trail.
“I find it appalling that the county is allowing this encroachment to go through at such a pinch point,” Kelso said. “If [Ourisman] cared about the community, they’d give the trail more land.”
Chris Ourisman, president of Ourisman Automotive Group, told the meeting audience that he and his family’s company “feel terrible” about the wall. He did not comment specifically on the garage.
“Our intent was never to encroach on public space,” Ourisman told the group.
The dealership owns the land where the wall was built and the garage is being expanded. However, the steel support columns are just inside one of two adjacent 10-foot easements west of the trail. Those easements, the county and the Ourisman group agree, allow county maintenance vehicles to reach the trail and a small park behind the dealership.
The problems, county officials say, stem from the design plan that Ourisman submitted in seeking a building permit. The document that was supposed to show “existing conditions” did not include the trail right of way and “wasn’t very clear” about the two easements, said Diane Schwartz Jones, director of the county’s Department of Permitting Services.
The staffer who approved the building permit did not realize the trail and easements were there, she said. The document does show an “asphalt path.”
In November, the county issued a stop-work order on the garage construction. That order, which Ourisman is appealing, remains in effect, though renovations on the dealership’s showroom have been allowed to continue.
“They’ve already apologized,” Jones said of Ourisman. “There were mistakes made. The question is, do we try to take the situation and create something generally better [via a legal settlement], or do we go for a scorched-earth approach? I don’t think that’s in anyone’s interest.”
Brewer, Ourisman’s attorney, said it would cost “well in excess of $1 million” to tear down the parking garage, which Ourisman needs to store about 80 new vehicles and those awaiting service. County vehicles have never used either easement on Ourisman’s property, he said. Even so, he said, the lowest part of the garage deck is 19 feet high, leaving plenty of room for county vehicles to drive beneath it. Because of that, he said, the county’s easements remain intact.
“We can’t explain why the county wasn’t aware of the existence of the easements” before it granted the building permit, Brewer said. “There certainly wasn’t any attempt by Ourisman to obscure it. . . . They’re certainly apologetic because there are a lot of annoyed people. Ourisman has been around a long time with a lot of goodwill, and they’re certainly not interested in alienating people.”
In Ourisman’s latest proposal, the garage would remain and the dealership would create a shoulder on the trail by moving it a foot or two to the east. Ourisman also would install landscaped buffers along the trail and build a 2,450-square-foot public plaza at Bethesda Avenue. The garage would get a decorative facade to help it better blend with the adjacent Sacks neighborhood, and an ornamental fence, rather than a concrete wall, would separate the dealership and trail.
Brewer said the package would cost Ourisman more than $1 million.
Jones said that the county is seeking public input on the offer but that, in general, she thinks it would be a “meaningful investment” in the trail and surrounding area. Even if the county won a court fight and the garage had to be torn down or redesigned, Jones said, the trail would not get the improvements that Ourisman has offered.
Ron Tripp, chairman of the nonprofit Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, said the advocacy group “can accept” Ourisman’s proposal because it would give the trail more room and provide more public gathering space.
But other community members following the issue say they want Ourisman to do more. Residents from the Sacks neighborhood say they need to be better shielded from the dealership’s noise, lights and exhaust fumes, which they have complained about for years. Others say the deal would only encourage developers to build in public space, asking forgiveness rather than seeking permission.
Bethesda resident Amanda Farber said the case reflects a broader trend she has seen, with development plans that end up taking more from the public than they give.
“To me, this just adds to this sense that this sort of thing is okay, and it only becomes a problem if a resident figures out there’s an issue and reports it,” Farber said. “It’s sort of a ‘Let’s see what we can get away with’ mentality.”