SILVER SPRING – After three hours of testimony on March 28, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved a site plan that includes a new administration building and a rearranged parking area at Leisure World on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.
Plans for a two-story, $7.2 million administration building that would be 21,389 square feet was approved unanimously despite the many residents who testified that they felt left out of the process and would have preferred having studies conducted to see if the current building could be fixed for less money.
The plan involves 11.6 acres of the 630-acre community, which is a residential facility for people 55 years and older and is home to about 8,500 residents.
Last week’s hearing was a continuation of a November 2017 hearing, in which the management of Leisure World was asked to adjust its plans to make walking and entryways more accessible and also to reach out to residents about the plans.
In the approved site plan, pedestrian walkways are realigned, and the parking lot is reconfigured, going from 71 to 58 spaces.
Planning board members made it clear at the start of the meeting that they had no jurisdiction over whether Leisure World managers have the legal authority to act on behalf of its residents, nor did it wish to be involved in the disagreements between residents and management.
“The board doesn’t have any jurisdiction over how Leisure World is governed,” noted the board’s attorney, Matthew Mills.
He told board members, “It is not legally required for you to consider” whether there is a consensus amongst residents. “A lack of consensus is not a legally sustainable reason” to deny the site plan, he said.
About two dozen people spoke during the meeting, with the majority of speakers against the plan. They protested the number of mature trees that would be taken down, the costs and the lack of environmental, traffic and engineering studies.
John Feldmann called the plans “predetermined,” and said he believed all documentation was done to back up what had already been decided by management.
“If the board has outgrown the current administration building, it should stop renting space to banks and credit unions when there are so many banks nearby, and most people do their banking online anyway,” he said.
Carolee Rowse, who has lived at Leisure World since 2015, said a new administration building “was never intended for the benefit of the tenants.”
In deciding among alternatives, “The board of directors chose the most fiscally irresponsible,” she said, noting, “Our money has been squandered by the board before.”
Barbara Gould also opposed the plans, testifying that 2,000 people had signed a petition against a new administration building.
Others spoke of stormwater management problems and the stress on respiratory problems for older residents when the current building is razed.
Several people spoke in favor of a new administration building.
“The existing building is a giant sinkhole to which we throw lots of money,” said 12-year resident Rosalind Kipping.
“We are throwing money away trying to maintain it,” she said.
Ann Ferren, who sits on the board’s community planning advisory committee, praised the plans, stating that the pedestrian walkways are now better suited for the residents.
She said “there has been ample opportunity” for residents to be involved.
Residents are divided into 29 mutuals, depending upon which building they reside. Each of those mutuals has representation at board meetings.
Some of those in favor of the plan arrived at the board meeting by a bus arranged by management.
In an email from Dora Pugliese that was obtained by the Montgomery Sentinel, she wrote, a bus is available “if you are for it,” referring to the site plan. The words “if you are for it” were in large orange type.
Pugliese, chair of the Leisure World Community Corporation Board’s landscaping advisory committee, noted that the bus would be leaving two hours before the meeting’s start, because “I am told that there will be a lot of people” attending and that members of Just Us, which has come out strongly against the plans and had arranged several resident town halls “will be there (to) try to take over the meeting.”
Previously, Leisure World management had explained that the current building is moldy, doesn’t have enough room for its staff and isn’t up to current codes.