Monday, June 6, 2022

Rockville Council considers new options in West End historic designation case, Mayor recuses herself

Rockville City Council members will discuss three new options to resolve a controversial historic preservation case in the city's West End neighborhood at their meeting tonight, June 6, 2022 at 7:00 PM. The options are on the table after new developments in the debate over whether or not to declare the home at 406 Great Falls Road historic, which have transpired since the April 25 hearing on the question. Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton has formally recused herself from voting on the matter. In a letter filed with City Clerk Sara Taylor-Ferrell on May 10, Newton wrote that she would recuse herself from "taking any action on Sectional Map Amendment application MAP 2022-00123 as well as from any further proceedings on that application," because her husband owns an abutting property at 13 Dale Drive that could be "'directly and economically' impacted" by the outcome of the case.

Newton's recusal letter was filed a day after the attorney for the owners of 406 Great Falls Road wrote to the Mayor and Council that her clients were concerned Newton had a conflict of interest in the case. Attorney Erin Girard wrote that in a previous historic designation discussion in 2010, Newton disclosed that her husband had previously made an unsuccessful bid to purchase 406 Great Falls. Newton also testified against historic designation of 406 Great Falls three years earlier, Girard wrote. The owners formally requested that Newton recuse herself from the case, Girard concluded in her letter.

The Mayor's recusal could impact the outcome of the historic designation question. There is now the mathematical potential for the Council to deadlock 2-2 in its final vote, for example.

More fundamental to the issue, Girard contacted the city's Chief of Planning, Jim Wasilak, and disclosed that there were actually two separate buildable lots on the 406 Great Falls property recorded with the City in 1941. A staff report notes this was not uncommon in Rockville, where many buildable lots recorded with the City were never built on. It has been standard practice for the City to honor these recorded lots in the present day. Therefore, the owners of 406 Great Falls could theoretically build the "dream home" they have proposed behind the existing home, leaving the latter in place.

As a result of this development, three new options have been proposed by city staff. The first option is to declare both of the buildable lots at 406 Great Falls historic, which would preserve the existing home, and require the owners to go through the formal Historic District Commission certificate of approval process when building their new home or altering the existing one. Option 2 would be to only designate the front lot with the existing home as historic, and allow construction of a new home behind it that would not be subject to formal approval from the HDC. Option 3 would be to not declare either lot historic, thereby allowing demolition of the existing home.

City staff is recommending Option 1. In addtion, staff recommends reopening the public record on the case, and allowing oral testimony on the question at tonight's meeting. At the conclusion of that public testimony tonight, the Council would discuss the matter, and give staff instructions. Based on what staff is directed to do by the Council, it will prepare an ordinance for approval of historic designation, or a resolution of denial, at a future Mayor and Council meeting on June 27, 2022 or later.

The City has also received further written public communications on the matter.

West End resident - and former Mayor of Rockville - Larry Giammo emailed the Mayor and Council the day after the April 25 hearing, questioning why local preservation organization Peerless Rockville was given only five minutes to testify. In contrast, the property owners had "at least 20 minutes total (maybe more; I wasn't keeping count)" to speak throughout the hearing. Peerless Rockville was the original party to request the evaluation of the property for historic designationn. But, Giammo wrote, they were not given sufficient time to lay out their case, nor to respond to assertions made by the owners and their representatives after Peerless Rockville Director Nancy Pickard finished her testimony.

On the side opposing historic designation, another Rockville resident wrote a letter in support of the owners after the April 25 hearing. There is no justification for preserving the dilapidated home, he wrote, and doing so would represent a partial taking of the property by the City.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

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