West Montgomery County Citizens Association: How Will Residents Be Heard During Pandemic?

Saving trees at Swains Lock; another proposed senior living facility; silly walks?

NO MAY GENERAL MEETING

In response to the COVID-19 national emergency and the related closure of the Potomac Community Center, WMCCA will close out its General Meeting schedule early – with plans to return in the Fall with our Oct. 14 General Meeting. We wish all the best for everyone to stay safe and healthy while we continue to support each other and our community through these unprecedented times.

Spectrum - Another Senior Living Facility Proposed - This in the Time of Pandemic

submitted by President Susanne Lee

Spectrum Retirement Communities, LLC, a Denver-based corporation that operates 48 senior living facilities in 10 states proposes to construct its first facility on the East Coast at 9545 River Road near the intersection of River and Persimmon Tree Road. The site is the current location of Potomac Petals and Plants and was previously the site of Behnke’s Nursery. The 5 acre site is zoned RE-2 Residential – single family houses built on 2 acre lots. Spectrum proposes to construct a 100 unit residential care facility (a continuing care retirement community). In order to do so in this single family residential zone, it must obtain a Conditional Use (previously Special Exception) approval from the Montgomery County Office of Zoning and Administrative Appeals (OZAH). Prior to a decision by OZAH, conditional use applications are submitted to the Montgomery County Planning Board and they provide their recommendations to OZAH.

Spectrum filed its application with OZAH on March 18, 2020 (CU 20-5) and OZAH set its hearing date for July 17, 2020. It was received by the Planning Board on March 11, 2020 and some of the documents were posted on their website on April 2, 2020 (CU202005). The Planning Board has not disclosed the date for the meeting of its Development Review Committee or the Planning Board hearing.

Spectrum presented preliminary information on their proposal at WMCCA’s October 2019 General Meeting. At the time, we were gratified to see that, in contrast to the since-withdrawn Heritage Gardens townhouse development, their proposal resembled a residential care facility. At the time members expressed their concerns about the size, location, and need for yet another such facility. We urged them to be creative and consider offering something other than their usual large institutional model. Looking at their current application, it appears the only change they made was in the color and shape of the façade.

This is how the proposed structure will look:

https://eplans.montgomeryplanning.org/UFS/31763/90458/CU202005%2016_%20%20Exh%20P%20-%20Architectural%20Plans.pdf/CU202005%2016_%20%20Exh%20P%20-%20Architectural%20Plans.pdf

We learned only recently that this formal application had been filed and we are now beginning our review. Our initial reaction is that the project is: much too large given the size and location of the site; incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood; likely to exacerbate the flooding caused by the Ken Branch stream; and inconsistent with the Potomac Subregion Master Plan and the need for senior housing in the County and the Potomac Subregion. The building would have 100 units: 40 independent living units made up of studio,1 bedroom and 2 bedroom units with kitchens; 42 Assisted Living Units made up of studio, 1 and 2 bedroom units without kitchens; and,18 memory care units.

There will be 56 employees working 3 different shifts with 25-40 on the site at any one time. There will be 86 underground and 16 surface parking spaces. In addition to the housing units, there will be a central restaurant, a bistro, cybercafé, fitness center, multipurpose community center, theater, and multiple lounges. The proposal maxes out the density, lot coverage, and height limitations and provides the absolute minimum of green space required under the Zoning Code.

The application comes at a time when the Potomac Subregion is flooded with the construction of new senior living facilities providing the same levels and types of services proposed by Spectrum. Brandywine is under construction on the former site of the Potomac Tennis Club next to ManorCare and the Falls Road Golf Course. It will include 140 beds in 120 suites made up of assisted living and memory care units.

Artis Senior Living under construction on River Road near the quarry will contain 72 memory care units. The Village on Scott Drive is constructing a whole new complex of independent living units adding to its existing cottage and assisted living and skilled nursing units. These are in addition to the existing large facilities on the periphery of the Subregion such as Ingleside at King Farm and the Fox Hill Residences and Sunrise at Fox Hill at River Road and the Beltway. Previously the predominant desire of many seniors in the Potomac Subregion was to age in place. Given the current situation of many residential facilities during the Pandemic, it is unclear what the demand for congregate living will be in the future.

Our immediate concern is that the Conditional Use application process, already very opaque and difficult for citizens to navigate, will become even more difficult given the restrictions on participation resulting from Covid-19. The OZAH and Planning Board offices are closed to the public and activities, including hearings and document requirements, have to be done entirely online. Even notice of the application which is made by posting a sign on the site is ineffective given that we are under a stay-at-home order and few are likely to see it. In addition, the sign was placed on the far right corner of the property and not in a conspicuous location such as the middle of the parking lot. OZAH is only required to give actual notice to a very few individuals and entities and then just 30 days before the hearing. Furthermore, OZAH sometimes limits the number of individuals who can become Parties of Record entitled to receive all communications.

With a proposal such as this one, WMCCA ordinarily would be trying to personally contact all of the neighbors affected, conducting open meetings, etc., but we will not be able to do that for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the application process continues and we will be requesting that OZAH and the Planning Board provide additional methods for citizens to participate. If you are interested in learning more about the process and want to be involved and included in our efforts, please email me at susannelee1@hotmail.com or call me at 301-956-4535.

OZAH indicates that because their offices are closed, the case documents will be found on the Planning Board website on the DAIC Dashboard at the link below. Although the Dashboard does not include all of the documents that would ordinarily be available at the OZAH office, it does provide many essential documents. If this link does not work for you, you can search for the file on the Montgomery County Planning Board website by using the Spectrum Case No. CU202005. https://eplans.montgomeryplanning.org/daiclinks/pdoxlinks.aspx?apno=CU202005&projname=Spectrum%20Retirement

Walking Our Neighborhoods

submitted by Ken Bawer

To put a positive spin on a terrible situation, it is great to see so many people out walking our neighborhoods. I have seen more people walking these past few months than in the past twenty years. One neighbor who normally has their security gate closed even posted a sign on the now-open gate inviting walkers to tour their beautiful garden.

Having said that, sometimes our walks in areas without sidewalks resemble a game of chicken where two parties are walking towards each other hoping that the other will yield and cross the street to maintain social distancing. When I politely suggested to someone coming towards me that it was safer to walk facing traffic, the response was, “I’ll do whatever I want.”

What are the rules? It used to be taught in elementary school that one should always walk facing traffic. That seems reasonable since one could presumably prepare to move even further off the road if an oncoming vehicle showed no signs of a courtesy move-over. If that wasn’t enough, please know that it is illegal to walk on the right side in areas without sidewalks: “Where no sidewalk is provided, a pedestrian may walk only on the left shoulder or on the left side of the roadway, facing traffic. Penalty: $40 or up to $500.00.”

With those fun facts in mind, let’s go out there and get some exercise!

Swains Campground Logging

submitted by Barbara Brown

Five years ago, Nov. 9, 2015, there was a public meeting at Swains Lock Campground after plans were made by the C&O Canal National Park to severely log the open area. Nearly 50 people attended. After statements and suggestions from arborists and Councilman Roger Berliner, cutting was abbreviated. Extensive replanting was attempted after the pruning and removal of several diseased trees. The public protest clearly signaled the desire to have careful management of the wooded campground for safety and aesthetics.

It was a surprise that ‘in the time of COVID-19’ the Park announced that starting immediately - additional tree clearing would be made by Bartlett Tree Experts under contract to the National Park. Upon inspection, 50 mature trees were marked for removal with medallions. Once again concerned citizens rallied: WMCCA, the Canal Trust, the C&O Canal Association’s Swains Lock canal stewards, and neighbors – to protest both the timing and the extent of the proposed logging.

A Zoom-type conference call on April 24 included Tina Capetta (Superintendent), John Noel (Assistant Superintendent), John Adams (Park Safety Officer), Jason Gillis (Arborist and Facility Operations Specialist), Tim Zastrow (Bartlett Project Manager), and others. The call was also attended by Officers of WMCCA, the Canal Trust, the C&O Canal Association’s Swains Lock canal stewards, and neighbors. A powerpoint program created by the Park Service emphasized the importance of public safety and stated there was now a two-year continuing maintenance schedule for Swains Lock campground due to “public feedback.” It was announced that because of the public concerns, the trees marked for removal were reduced from 50 to 5. Promises were made to replant with careful planning to maintain and restore the beauty of this camping area. Most importantly, it opened a positive communication channel between the Park and the various communities and individuals who are passionate about it.

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