Updated plan gains unanimous approval despite continued protests
ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Council unanimously voted Tuesday to clear the way for up to 700 residential units and more commercial developments to spring up in Westbard.
Local residents for years spoke against the proposed development by Equity One Inc. in south Bethesda, decrying its proposed size, which the council eventually cut in half.
Before the vote took place, Council member Roger Berliner (D-1), who represents Westbard and offered his own amendments to the master plan, read a statement addressing the plan’s controversy.
“Today marks the end of one chapter in the evolution of Westbard and the beginning of a new one,” said Berliner. “It has been, to say to the least, a bumpy ride.”
For Bethesda resident Lynn Pekkanen, the May 3 vote ended a long fight against updating the Westbard sector plan
“In our minds, the developer has won,” Pekkanen said. “We fought the developer and the developer won. However the developer taught us that we need a countywide movement.”
The Westbard sector plan is one of the oldest in Montgomery County last being updated in 1982.
Berliner argued that updating the plan would provide much needed upgrades to the current shopping center that he said was, “unattractive” and “rundown.”
A Giant supermarket, Anglo Dutch Pools and Toys and Bowlmor Bethesda bowling alley, are among the tenants occupying the land proposed for development.
Both residents and the council generally agree the shopping center is due for an upgrade but disagree on how much residential housing the upgrade should include.
Bethesda residents opposing the plan, collectively known as Save Westbard, showed up at Tuesday’s council meeting in protest holding signs showing their disapproval.
They said the plan would further urbanize Westbard and contribute to already existing issues with traffic and school overcrowding.
Two protesters in the back of the council meeting room held a large white sign stating “Save Westbard No to Equity One” in black letters.
“What our beef with the government is they think that they’re communicating to the public, but they largely aren’t,” said Bethesda resident Sid Clemans.
Clemans, who had followed the issue for months, wrote a lengthy letter to council staff urging them to delay the vote, saying the public needed more time to review the master plan.
Some of the protestors accused members of the council of having a closer relationship with real estate developers than their constituents.
Before the vote Berliner objected to charges of corruption from some of the protestors saying that he did have to do what was popular to do what was right.
“I’m aware that this vote may cost me politically,” Berliner said. “…I’m going do the right thing and approve this master plan.”
Berliner also said he worked with community leaders and the planning commission to reduce the scope of the plan by 50 percent and the council does not make planning decision by “plebiscite.”
Council member Marc Elrich (D-At large) also voted in favor of the plan but was critical of the process saying in the future that community planning needs to do a better job of involving local residents.
“The answer is not to go to a plebiscite system but the answer is to move back to citizen advisory committees,” Elrich said.
The council said the upgrade in the Westbard master plan would require developers to make 15 percent of their units affordable housing. Members said the changes would bring diversity to an affluent area.
Those against the plan said they did not object to affordable housing, only to mass scale devolvement that in their minds would urbanize their neighborhoods.
“People on the other side shouldn’t oversell doom and gloom, and we shouldn’t oversell the brilliance of our plan,” Elrich said.
After the vote, Equity One released a statement saying company officials “look forward to the next stage and continuing our work with all stakeholders as we move towards a new mixed-use Westwood that’s modern, convenient and community friendly.”