ROCKVILLE — Townhouses will not be built at the historic Chestnut Lodge site, at least any time soon.
On Monday, the City Council rejected a proposal to build seven townhouses the site of the former main building by a 3-2 vote.
West End Civic Association citizens overwhelmingly testified against the proposal, including sticking “Not Townhouses on Historic Chestnut Lodge” in their front lawns.
Meanwhile, the Planning Commission also recommended disapproval of the project.
Stephen Orens, an attorney representing the developer, said he wanted to discuss the vote with his client before disclosing any plans about what the developer plans to do next.
“We’re disappointed, obviously,” said Orens.
However, Peerless Rockville executive director Nancy Pickard said her organization “is very supportive of the vote that happened tonight.”
She said the application was “inconsistent with the historic development of Chestnut Lodge and we think the Council left the door open for development that will better reflect the historical significant of this parcel.
“And we look forward to seeing what (plan) might come forward for possible development in the future,” added Pickard.
In a rare split with both of his Team Rockville colleagues, Council member Mark Pierzchala broke from Council members Julie Palakovich Carr and Virginia Onley to join Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and Council member Beryl Feinberg in the majority.
Feinberg initially offered a motion to reject the plan but Pierzchala asked to substitute a motion he drafted ahead of time, one he did not share with the rest of the council until that moment.
At first, it caught Feinberg off guard, as she and Pierzchala had sparred during the previous two council meetings about transparency and prior notification.
However, Pierzchala then read the text of the motion, which he said explained the specific reasons for rejecting the JPC Chestnut Lodge, LLC application itself.
His motion, seconded by Feinberg, instructed city staffers to draft a resolution denying the application based on two criteria: it conflicted with the Master Plan and it would adversely affect the historical environment of the City and surrounding area.
$11. “The PRU (Planned Residential Unit) redevelopment plan was a carefully crafted compromise by the community and the developer taking great care to preserve the character of this nationally recognized historic site.”
$12. “The Main Lodge was the centerpiece of the property both before and during the process that led to the PRU approval in 2006.”
$13. “The original approval of residential development was expressly conditioned on the preservation of the Main Lodge. The proposed residential development is 35 percent larger than the original approval. Any development on this site would need to be more consistent with the originally approved plan than what is proposed.”
While Team Rockville members have not always voted as a slate on every issue, 3-2 majorities often come down to Feinberg and Newton on one side, Pierzchala and Palakovich Carr on the other, and Onley as the majority maker.
Onley and Palakovich Carr both questioned the legality of denying the application, based on the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for developing historic sites.
“I personally do not see how this motion meets legal standards,” said Palakovich Carr, who said she personally would like to deny the application.
Onley pointed out that the reality of the situation was the main building at Chestnut Lodge no longer stood there, so it was time to move forward with a new plan for the area.
“Are those characteristics still there? Chestnut Lodge is not there. It burned down.”
Both Feinberg and Newton tried to unsuccessfully persuade Onley.
“The building itself does not exist but the site itself is historic,” said Newton.
Feinberg pointed out that the footprint of the project would increase from the 8,930 square feet as originally approved in 2006 for a multi-family dwelling at the site before the 2009 fire to 11,150 feet, a 32 percent increase.
“In my view, that’s not a minor change to the site footprint,” said Feinberg.
She added it would also change the historic nature of the area.
“I’m looking beyond the one building. I’m looking to the whole watershed,” said Feinberg.
Pierzchala said he couldn’t remember another issue in which he sided in the majority this term without either one of the other council members between Palakovich Carr and Onley on his side.
In fact, earlier in the night, Pierzchala, Palakovich Carr and Onley voted in the 3-2 majority to move recycling and refuse bills for city residents to the County’s property tax bill.
Pierzchala said he did not decide which way to vote on the townhouses until earlier that day, after he spent 7.5 hours reading up on Chestnut Lodge in addition to the time he spent researching the issue earlier.
“I’ve got to say, I did my due diligence on this vote,” said Pierzchala.
Among the body of texts that influenced him the most, Pierzchala cited Gail Hornstein’s 512-page book “To Redeem One Person Is To Redeem The World – The Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.”
The book, which came out nine years before the building that once served as a psychiatric hospital burned down, focuses on a famous psychiatrist who treated people with severe mental illnesses at the Chestnut Lodge facility.
Pierzchala said the longer he’s served on the council, the more he’s grown to appreciate the city’s historic resources, even becoming a member of the National Historic Trust.
To him, approving the townhouses would be incompatible not just with the Master Plan but also with preserving the history of the Chestnut Lodge site.
“The Master Plan clearly saw this as an incredibly important historical site to the city,” he said. “I just didn’t find that the application honored the historic district.”