Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Mayor and Council vote to deny Chestnut Lodge amendment

Chestnut Lodge in 2003
Rockville's Mayor and Council voted 3-2 to deny an amendment to the Chestnut Lodge Planned Residential Unit (PRU) agreement that would have permitted townhomes to replace a multifamily condominium renovation of the historic sanitarium. The building burnt down in a suspicious fire in 2009.

Councilmember Virginia Onley said she would not oppose the developer's plan, citing her concern that the City could face legal action in the case if it denied the amendment. Other elected officials, past and present, have asserted that the City's legal position is strong, in that the PRU remains binding and in effect, and required the original building to remain in order to execute the agreement.

Onley referred to comments by Twinbrook Citizens Association President Richard Gottfried during a public hearing earlier in the evening, in which Gottfried warned of the danger of "spot zoning" on the different topic of the Rockville Pike Neighborhood Plan. Gottfried mentioned the legal action now pending against the City for its decision in the EZ Storage case.

While she said she opposes building townhomes on the site, Councilmember Julie Palakovich Carr said the City is "held to certain legal standards" it may not be able to get out of in a case like this. She asked City staff to clarify its assessment of the criteria that is to be applied to the PRU and the proposed amendment. Zoning chief Jim Wasilak replied that, "We didn't see anything necessarily that was in conflict with the [Master] Plan." The site is in the W. Montgomery Avenue Historic District.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who has long made clear her opposition to the townhome plan, said approval of it would "undermine" the entire W. Montgomery Avenue Historic District. She also objected to the applicant's proposal to greatly increase the footprint of the building beyond that of the original Chestnut Lodge. An out-of-character development would result in the loss of a historic site of not just local, but national, importance, she argued. In particular, rear decks and garages would negatively impact the site itself, as well as surrounding homes in the historic district.

Following the Mayor's remarks, Councilmember Beryl Feinberg moved to deny the amendment, but was questioned as to her reasoning by Councilmember Mark Pierzchala.

Then, Pierzchala made his own motion to deny the amendment. His motion instructed staff to bring back a resolution to the Mayor and Council that states the townhome project is in conflict with the Master Plan. It stated that the historic district the site is in would be "profoundly affected" by the out-of-character development.

Pierzchala's motion also zeroed in on specific issues related to the PRU agreement. He said the agreement was "expressly conditioned" on the retention of the main lodge building. He added that any proposal needs to be "more consistent" with the existing PRU. The townhome concept "does not meet the spirit or the intent of the original understanding," Pierzchala said.

The motion passed 3-2, with Onley and Palakovich Carr opposed.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

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