Active and life members of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad are butting heads over a plan to build a high-rise apartment building next door to a new station.
The squad leadership says the current headquarters at 5020 Battery Lane has fallen into disrepair and is too small to meet the squad’s needs, but members lack the funds to build a new station on their own. Their solution is to sell part of the squad’s site to developers for a housing complex and use the proceeds to build a new station on the leftover piece of property.
But a group of life members has taken issue with the proposal, objecting to the loss of parking and training space and pointing to potential conflicts with the surrounding neighborhood. Sacrificing property is particularly ill-timed when Bethesda’s anticipated growth will only heighten the demand for rescue services, the members argue.
“In the face of the recommended significant increase in densities, it seems short-sighted to reduce the Rescue Squad’s useable space at precisely the time when the demand for its services can be expected to increase—and increase substantially,” attorney Michele Rosenfeld, who is representing concerned Bethesda residents, wrote to the council.
The disagreement is coming to a head as County Council members deliberate over the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, which will determine the fate of the squad’s redevelopment scheme. A council committee on Monday favored granting the squad’s property the necessary zoning for the project, a decision that squad President Kenneth Holden took as a positive sign.
“That’s the big deal for us. It gives us the density the developer needs to make it profitable for them to move forward,” Holden said.
Opponents of the plan have pressed the council to deny this zoning density, arguing the project would have negative consequences for both the squad and the community.
Andy Hasselwander, president of the Battery Park Citizens Association, said his group is worried about the height of the proposed apartment building and the potential for intensifying road congestion. The neighborhood already deals with significant cut-through traffic problems, and adding a new housing complex would only make matters worse, Hasselwander explained in a phone interview.
“If there is more traffic, we are asking the County Council to help us with that,” he said.
The citizens association also asked for a 90-foot height limit on the proposed building so it doesn’t loom over the neighborhood and block out the light. While the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended a 120-foot height cap on the property, the council committee on Monday supported lowering the limit by 30 feet.
The redevelopment would lead to a significant loss of parking space for the squad, a source of concern for the life members. The lot acts as a training ground, where members can set up mock-crash scenes to practice freeing people from mangled cars and treating patients at accidents. The squad also sells Christmas trees and holds other fundraising activities in the parking area.
The squad president said he’s confident members and developers will collaborate to find sufficient parking and training space and could host fundraisers in alternative locations, he said.
The roughly 80-year-old rescue squad moved into its existing two-story station in the 1970s, but the volunteers have grown cramped inside the roughly 26,000-square-foot facility.
The building lacks storage space and has an outdated layout for its living quarters. Many members have to store their gear on makeshift rolling racks because there aren’t enough lockers.
“It’s challenging living in a building that was built in 1974 and is supposed to be 2017 capable,” Holden said. “It’s time to secure a future for the next 50 years.”
The replacement station that the squad leaders envision would be nearly twice the size of the current building, with state-of-the-art amenities, more room for volunteers to eat and gather and more private bunkrooms, he said.
But the squad, which has about 150 active volunteers, has faced financial struggles in recent years and doesn’t have the funds to pay for a new building on its own, Holden said. The county hasn’t offered any money to help.
Holden said squad leadership hopes that proceeds from the land sale to developers would cover the estimated $15 million construction cost for a new station, with enough money left over to establish an endowment that could furnish the squad with an ongoing revenue stream.
The life members say the specifics of the development deal haven’t been shared with the general membership, but they’re skeptical that the sale would produce any type of windfall. They also argue that other options are available, such as asking the county for aid.
However, the full County Council will make the final decision on the zoning and height restrictions when they review the Bethesda downtown plan.