GAITHERSBURG — Nearly 13 months after voting to annex the Johnson Property – an area near the intersection of Darnestown Road and Quince Orchard Boulevard – into the city, the Gaithersburg City Council on Tuesday voted to approve a development plan for it after a year of litigation surrounding the circumstances of the annexation vote.
On Dec. 19, 2016, the Council passed resolutions to annex the Johnson Property, an area near the intersection of Darnestown Road and Quince Orchard Boulevard and authorizing City Manager Tony Tomasello to execute an agreement to develop the property for mixed zone commercial and residential use.
At the time the Council debated the annexation resolutions, it was operating at reduced capacity following the death of Council member Henry F. Marraffa. Council member Ryan Spiegel was also absent due to an illness, and had indicated that he would recuse himself after learning that his employer, the Bethesda-based law firm Paley Rothman, had a business relationship with one of the developers.
The vote was delayed when Council member Robert Wu, citing public concerns over the impact of the annexation on density and school capacity, walked out of the meeting, depriving the Council of the necessary quorum to conduct business. Spiegel, who’d been watching the Council session on television, then drove to City Hall to reestablish a quorum and formally announced that he was recusing himself. Council members Neil Harris and Michael Sesma passed the resolutions 2-0.
Following the 2-0 vote, civic activist Aaron Rosenzweig recruited several nearby residents who had the proper legal standing to sue to overturn the vote. Represented by Robin Ficker, a Boyds-based attorney, activist, and perennial Republican candidate, the plaintiffs argued that it was taken without a proper quorum and sought a writ of mandamus to rescind the vote.
But Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge David A. Boynton found that the vote did not violate the process outlined in Gaithersburg’s city charter, and granted a motion by Board and the Johnson Property developers to dismiss the lawsuit.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Long Term Planning Manager Rob Robinson presented Mayor Jud Ashman and the Council on the Schematic Development Plan proposed by developer Cal-Atlantic Homes. The proposal includes plans for 26 detached family homes and 80 townhouses and a 1.25-acre park on approximately 14 acres of land.
At the start of the discussion, Spiegel, currently serving as Council Vice President, again announced that he would recuse himself from discussing and voting on the matter.
Council members praised Cal-Atlantic’s flexibility during the design process.
“I think the applicant has been quite responsive to our concerns,” said Council member Michael A. Sesma. “I’m glad to see that we’re going to get some more affordable units out of this.”
“When this concept first came to us, there were definitely some issues, and we heard from the surrounding community at great length and at large volume,” said Council member Neil Harris. Some of the issues included the number of units that was originally proposed for the development being something like 300, which seemed like a lot for a relatively constrained space. There were issues in terms of traffic patterns and others as well. Over the course of the annexation process and over the course of the design plan, those were addressed largely. We now have 106 units and not 300. We have a much-improved traffic plan…the character of the email from the surrounding community changed dramatically over the process.”
“One of my priorities, when I was running for office, was to ensure that we focused on increasing the inventory of affordable housing,” said Laurie-Anne Sayles, the Council’s most junior member. “This plan means those needs. We wish that we can always do more, but this is a great start, and I know we’re going to continue the discussion of how to improve our affordable housing ordinance.”
“If I had a vote on this, I would vote for it,” Ashman said.
While expressing appreciation for the Johnson family and Cal-Atlantic’s accommodations, Council member Wu – who tried to prevent the annexation vote by denying the Council a quorum – said that he still had problems with the proposal, citing concerns about parking based on past experiences in his home neighborhood, the Parklands, as well as school capacity.
“This property ultimately feeds into Quince Orchard High School, as do a lot of our other projects,” Wu said. “Ultimately, the question becomes, is there going to be enough capacity to educate those students that are living here? I urge us in going forward, to take a holistic approach in viewing all of the impacts [to] any of the clusters, because I’m not sure we can count on the Board of Education to address all of our concerns as fast as we want them to.”
The Council voted 3-1 to accept the proposal, with Wu voting against and Spiegel abstaining.