Public meetings on redevelopment in Westbard have produced plenty of community opposition over the past 16 months.
Two evening public hearing sessions last week marked the first time those involved in the debate got to take their case before the full County Council, which will make the final decision on how much redevelopment is allowed over the next two decades in the area around River Road and Westbard Avenue in Bethesda.
More than 60 people spoke both in favor of and against the Westbard Sector Plan as proposed by the county’s Planning Board. Here are eight of the most interesting, captivating and, in some cases, puzzling moments from the hearings.
You can watch the full hearing from Tuesday here and the full hearing from Thursday here.
‘Monopoly at its worst’
Westbard area resident Robert Lipman on Thursday took the prize for most interesting testimony, thanks to the help of a prop.
Lipman, who said he opposes the amount of redevelopment proposed by property owner Equity One, brought out a Monopoly board and referred directly to Michael Berfield, Equity One’s executive vice president of development who has been leading the company’s efforts and community outreach.
“Mike, you did a good job,” Lipman said, looking back at Berfield, who was in the audience. “You bought everything you could. You bought money for the land and you got the titles. Congratulations. You bought the PR firm that was hassling people at the Giant. You got money for the PR firm, oh and plenty of money for the lobbyist, too. Plenty of money. Lobbyist did a good job. The one thing it couldn’t buy was the support of the community because it didn’t deliver a plan that was consistent with the values of the community. They have to earn it and they didn’t give us a plan that was consistent with the values of the community.”
After running over his allotted three minutes of speaking time, Lipman finished, “This is Monopoly at its worst.”
Purple Line in Westbard?
Ralph Bennett, president of the nonprofit Purple Line Now! group, testified in support of much of the redevelopment that could happen with new zoning proposed by the county’s Planning Board.
He also took issue with the common characterization of Westbard as an area that isn’t transit accessible. Many opposed to the level of redevelopment envisioned in the plan have said the lack of major transit could result in more traffic congestion. They’ve also said it’s a planning strategy that runs contrary to the county’s policy of encouraging transit-oriented development.
Bennett, though, said Westbard could one day become a transit-oriented locale.
“And in the long term, I believe Westbard will be a logical stop on the Purple Line when it continues to Tysons,” Bennett told the council. “Like the sector plan itself, these plans are for the long term. I urge you to approve the plan as submitted.”
That drew audible groans and boos from many in attendance.
Council President Nancy Floreen, who was presiding over the hearing, thanked Bennett for “thinking big time here,” although it wasn’t clear if she was being serious.
The fact is there are no plans for the Purple Line to run past downtown Bethesda, the 16-mile light-rail’s western terminus.
Considering it took almost 30 years to get the project to its current status of almost construction ready, it seems unlikely the light-rail would be extended, even in the 25- to 30-year-lifespan of the Westbard Sector Plan.
Defund the Planning Board
Thomas Hearn, another area resident who opposes the proposed amount of redevelopment, said he hasn’t had the best experience with the Planning Board during the Westbard process, so the council should just defund the department:
“The experience with the Planning Board has been one of, I think many people feel like it was cooked from the beginning and we know now that charrette is the French word for charade,” Hearn said Thursday. “So my testimony to you tonight is a memo that Casey Anderson wrote regarding the proposed operating budget for the Planning Board, just the board offices, which this year was $1.2 million, and he’s asking for a 1.3 percent increase. I think many in the community would think that we did not receive good value for the $1.2 million that the Planning Board spent this past year and I would ask you to pose hard questions about whether or not the Planning Board should be funded at all in the coming year.”
Driving us to drink
Fred Graefe, another resident who also opposes the amount of redevelopment envisioned in the plan, told council members the Westwood Shopping Center owned by Equity One doesn’t need to be redeveloped because its “parking lot is full every day.”
He also jokingly suggested that the Planning Board version of the plan drove up sales at the county’s liquor store in the shopping center.
“This plan is developed by a wholly owned subsidiary of Equity One, the Planning Board. And I want you to know that I shop at Little Falls Mall, I shop at Westbard sector,” Graefer said Thursday. “The Westbard parking lot is full every day and it’s not just because your liquor store is there, although I would imagine after your plan came out, the sales went up dramatically.”
‘Millennials do not ride buses’
Representatives from Equity One and EYA, the Bethesda-based developer partnering with Equity One to build the residential portions of its project, have said many of the residents in its new buildings are likely to be empty nesters of retirement age or millennials.
The implication is that those new residents won’t bring kids who will need seats in the area’s already overcrowded schools.
River Road condominium resident Sue Schumacher said Tuesday she’s not buying it:
“All this housing that is planned for River Road, who is supposed to be living there? It is not going to be the millennials,” Schumacher said. “I am a residential real estate agent and I could tell you that millennials would soon as sleep in a tent at Logan Circle in the District than live in an area of Bethesda that is nowhere near a Metro station. Millennials do not ride buses. They ride Metro.”
Schumacher also railed against some of the bicycle lanes proposed in the plan.
“And who is going to be using these bike lanes?” she asked. “Not the seniors who live in the Kenwood Condominium.”
‘Word on the street’
Lynn Pekkanen, an area resident opposed to the plan, made her case to council members by accusing them of being influenced by campaign contributions from developers.
“The word on the street is 70 percent of the money that goes to this County Council comes from developers,” Pekkanen said Tuesday. “If that’s true, I want to know it.”
Pekkanen didn’t say where she heard the 70 percent figure but that she’d be “working on” figuring out if it’s true.
“I guess I’ll turn my time over to the people with a lot of money,” Pekkanen said. “They seem to need more time than us.”
‘Developers, our local counterpart to the Koch Brothers’
Area resident Stan Wiggins made clear he was as concerned about the planning process as he was about any redevelopment.
During his testimony lasting two minutes and 54 seconds (he emphatically concluded that he would “yield six seconds”), he said the Planning Board didn’t distribute enough paper copies of the plan at a hearing:
“As a Westbard resident for 20 years I would like to comment on the process of county government and its historical devotion to developers, our local counterpart to the Koch Brothers,” Wiggins started during his Thursday evening testimony. “Whatever your view of the planning consultation process, when the Planning Board finally approved the proposal now before you, despite the strongly voiced opposition of citizens at its meeting, it limited the distribution to 30 copies for the press and general public. A visitor from another planet might think that the property taxes paid by Westbard citizens would have entitled them to an effective distribution process. Not so.”
He also wondered why the council limited speakers to three minutes and why those speakers couldn’t yield unused time to other speakers:
“The council’s hearing limits speakers to three minutes. OK. But then you consider that unlike Congress, which preserves some reasonable procedures despite its failings, citizens in Montgomery County cannot yield time to their fellow citizens under your rules,” Wiggins said. “This reduces oral presentations to little more than soundbites, but the interwoven issues in the sector plan and their equally interwoven deficiencies require more than three minutes to even summarize. This process appears conceived to observe legal requirements and enflame public opinion further.”
The final word
Area resident John Lowe was the first scheduled speaker on the list of the final panel Thursday night.
But when Floreen called his name, Lowe made it clear he wasn’t interested in the order on the printed schedule.
“I’m going last,” Lowe said.
Floreen paused, before responding, “Well, that’s just fine.”