A newly formed group of residents, many from the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Bethesda, hopes to make its mark on the area’s ongoing master plan by limiting the height and density of new buildings adjacent to single-family homes.
The Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents, led by Town of Chevy Chase resident Mary Flynn, held its first public meeting Tuesday night. About 50 residents attended.
Some of those in attendance also live in the Town of Chevy Chase, including Mayor Al Lang and Town Council member Fred Cecere. But neighborhoods including East Bethesda, Battery Lane, Sacks and Chevy Chase Village Section 3 were also represented.
“I know the issues that I see in my community are very similar to the issues in East Bethesda and Edgemoor and Chevy Chase West and so on,” Flynn told the group, which met at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center. “So there are some key themes that are basically tying this together.”
The group hasn’t yet decided to take positions on specific facets of the Bethesda Downtown Plan, the master plan rewrite that will set new zoning and land use guidelines over at least the next 20 years. The revised plan is currently under review by the Planning Board.
But Flynn told attendees she was motivated to get more active in ongoing board deliberations over the plan because of a controversial high-rise development project pitched for between Wisconsin Avenue and West Avenue, a small neighborhood road in the town.
She identified four main issues: Ensuring the downtown plan includes enough public park space, determining the impact of new development on already overcrowded local schools and on roads and transportation, and protecting single-family neighborhoods on downtown Bethesda’s edge from buildings that would be too tall or too massive across the street.
But she also said the group “is not anti-development,” referring to a post by Bethesda resident Ben Ross last month on website Greater Greater Washington in which Ross criticized what he called the group’s “anti-development” stance.
“There was a little blog where someone said, ‘Oh, I know what CBAR’s all about. It’s all about this and that and the other thing.’ And no, not really,” Flynn said. “I like Bethesda. I want Bethesda to be wonderful and great. I’m not too thrilled about every one of the structures, but I don’t have a problem with just general development. If it’s good development that enriches our environment, I’m for that.”
Flynn also showed attendees the group’s website, which she hopes can become a resource for residents who speak before the board or the County Council, once the Bethesda Downtown Plan goes to that body for final review and approval later this year.
The website includes links to materials and correspondence included in all of the board’s work sessions so far on the plan, plus a rundown of commissioners, Planning Department staff and council members.
“The more information we have, I think the better chance at success that we have,” Flynn said. “We really need to have specific information so that when we go in front of the Planning Board, we can say we know x, y and z and therefore we’re asking for this accommodation. I think we too often just don’t have enough information and enough context, so we fail.”
The website also includes a “density tally” of how much potential square feet of redevelopment the board has tentatively approved in work sessions so far.
While Planning Department staff recommended allowing a 20 percent increase in density and potentially 4,000 new apartment units last year, commissioners have signaled approval for 2.9 million square feet of new development above the staff’s recommendation.
Chairman Casey Anderson has said the board will likely have to cut back on the allowable density in future work sessions.
Tuesday’s meeting also included a preview from Planning Department staff members of Thursday’s work session, which will focus on expanding and adding parks and open space in downtown Bethesda. The board will have at least two more work sessions before finalizing its recommendations and sending the plan to the council.