Saturday, April 19, 2014 10:53 AM
Published on: Thursday, May 09, 2013
By Holden Wilen
ROCKVILLE – It is becoming increasingly likely a new Wal-Mart will open in Aspen Hill after the Montgomery Council voted Monday to consider amending the minor master plan to rezone a vacant property for retail.
The vacant property, located at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, used to house Vitro Corporation but has been empty since 2010. A local developer, Lee Development Group, owns the property and wants to rezone the property for retail, and it already has a signed letter of intent with Wal-Mart.
Community members have spoken in support of rezoning the property, as have members of the council, although other council members have questioned Wal-Mart’s ethics.
The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee (PHED) recommended a compromise that would have changed the scope of the minor master plan to include all retail and commercial areas of the planning area instead of just a limited number of properties. The larger scope would have added another eight months to the Montgomery County Planning Board’s process.
Councilman George Leventhal supported the recommendation but expressed concern about using a minor master plan amendment that contradicts the master plan adopted in 1994 because a Wal-Mart could make Aspen Hill a regional shopping district.
“The recommendation is a win for everybody – the community as well as business owners – and it allows us to maintain the integrity of our planning process,” Leventhal said. “The question we must consider is not whether any retailer for this site makes sense. In considering the minor master plan proposal, we must ask whether it violates the existing master plan, and in so doing, we must ask if the likely retail use would make Aspen Hill a regional shopping district. A Wal-Mart that sells groceries would be unique in Montgomery County and would draw in shoppers from outside the Aspen Hill area; there is no question about that.”
Leventhal said Wal-Mart has already begun an advertising campaign that attacks Giant, which already has a grocery store in Aspen Hill. Leventhal said the campaign is “predatory” and questioned whether bringing Wal-Mart to Aspen Hill would cause other properties to become vacant in the future.
Councilman Marc Elrich agreed with Leventhal and said amending the minor master plan to specifically rezone the Vitro property is an example of spot-zoning.
Councilman Craig Rice proposed an amendment to accept the planning board’s original proposal to consider only a limited number of properties, including the Vitro property, and have a plan delivered to the council at the end of 2014 instead of adding an additional eight months.
Rice spoke in favor of Aspen Hill and said the council needs to make actions based on the community’s wants and needs. A Wal-Mart would not make Aspen Hill a regional shopping district,he said, but it would help the community instead of having a vacant property. Rice used Germantown as an example because of the Wal-Mart in the Milestone Center.
“I think oftentimes we have lost sight of that trying to pick and choose different kinds of fights to get people against each other,” Rice said. “This is crazy. The community has spoken. The community has said with a very loud voice that they want to see redevelopment on the Lee property. They did not say they wanted to see a Wal-Mart. They said they wanted to see redevelopment and they wanted to see something that has been a blight on the community for a number of years not become something that continues to be a blight in that community.”
The council, in the end, voted 5-4 to support Rice’s amendment. Council President Nancy Navarro, committee chair Nancy Floreen, and Councilmen Roger Berliner, Rice and Andrews voted to support the amendment. Councilmembers Leventhal, Elrich, Valerie Ervin and Hans Riemer voted against it.
The council chose to accept the rest of the PHED committee’s recommendations, which included adding the Sandy Spring minor master plan amendment to the work program, as well as adding a minor master plan amendment for the Bethesda Central Business District.
After the council’s decisions, Kate Planco Waybright, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said she was disappointed by the council’s vote.
“Research shows Wal-Mart is bad for communities,” Waybright said. “The neighborhoods where Wal-Marts open are left with higher poverty rates and more food stamp usage than places where the retailer does not expand … This is not what working families and small businesses in Montgomery County need.”
Navarro said the council does not make decisions on which retailer comes to the county, but she supported the amendment to the minor master plan because it is time to move forward. Leventhal responded by saying the vote signals the council wants to fast-track Wal-Mart.
“That is what this vote is about,” Leventhal said. “There is no question.”
Posted By: Cary Lamari On: 5/13/2013
Title: Cary Lamari
From my perspective as one who spent over 3 years working on the existing Master Plan for Aspen hill I believe this location will be very challenging if not impossible to support the traffic of a Walmart . Also there really needs to be employment base in Aspen Hill to support the existing businesses and this site is and was designated as that Employment center for Aspen Hill in the existing Master Plan. The building is old and needs considerable work but that is what it was designated for. To change the land use designation to retail in my opinion should involve a major master plan review with extensive community input. A Master Plan review that considers traffic, ingress and egress to the subject property pedestrian and vehicular safety and one that considers the impact to adjacent houses and the other properties business’s and homes in the Planning area. It is a travesty when the County Council will bypass most review to promote one particular developer to the detriment of the community.
I believe that the County Council has set itself up for a legal challenge in this decision; their action has the making of what is termed spot zoning. SPOT ZONING IS ILLEGAL. In rezoning a property In any Master Plan there is the presumption that the original zoning that was reviewed by a citizens advisory panel, approved and adopted by the Planning Board and then adopted by the County Council was well planned and to be permanent.
To rezone a property it must be found that there was a mistake in the original zoning or a change in the character of the neighborhood which justifies the change. No such mistake was made and no change to the character of the neighborhood has been found to date!
In this case the County Council without community input is arbitrarily and deliberately changing a zoning category without a finding of change or mistake and therefore it can only be presumed they are changing the zone on behalf of the applicant without community input or consideration of impacts to the surrounding community and not taking into consideration the potential hazards to pedestrian and vehicular safety thereby not protecting the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Aspen Hill. I say no to Walmart until a full Master Plan review takes place to protect the rights and quality of life of our community. I hope more residents speak out on this travesty before the character of our community changes and our quality of life is further diminished. Aspen Hill has become the unwanted stepchild of Montgomery County; Improvements to major infrastructure have been postponed indefinitely like the grade separated intersection at Norbeck and Georgia Ave, the widening of Norbeck Road which has been delayed for over 30 years to date and now this intrusion to the comprehensive and orderly development of our community.