Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Supporters of daylighting Willett Branch stream envision "Green Ribbon" within Westbard plan area (Photos)

The Little Falls Watershed Alliance hosted a presentation by Montgomery County Parks and Planning officials last night, on the potential daylighting of Willett Branch stream in the redevelopment of the Westbard Sector Plan area in Bethesda. Planner-coordinator Katherine Nelson of the Montgomery County Planning Department, Suzanne Paul of the Montgomery County Parks Department, and Natural Resources Manager Jai Cole of Montgomery County Parks discussed what the ideal linear park concept would be, and took questions from the audience.

LFWA is leading the advocacy effort to ensure that a daylighted Willett Branch remains part of the final Westbard Sector Plan, expected to be passed next year by the Montgomery County Council. The park would be a "Green Ribbon" in the currently-industrial area off River Road. Combined with a potential urban recreation park beside the Capital Crescent Trail there, it would provide a stream-centered green space that would also allow connectivity among the existing trails in the Little Falls Stream Valley Park.

Officials acknowledged there are no guarantees that the staff vision will end up in the final plan. Nelson said only the Planning Board can make changes to the plan at this stage of the sector plan process, not staff. The board will discuss this and other environmental proposals in the Draft Plan at its December 3 worksession. LFWA President Dan Dozier and Executive Director Sarah Morse made clear that supporters of the vision will have to strongly make their opinions known to the Council, Planning Board, and County Executive Ike Leggett to make it a reality.

Nelson said the ribbon-like park would be walkable, accessible, and provide connectivity between new and existing park amenities. "This double loop just makes so much sense to us," she said, allowing a new connection between the CCT and Little Falls Stream Valley Park, for example.

One of the original vision images
used - Sugar Creek in North Carolina
While the Parks Department initially began its visioning process with larger-scale models from Los Angeles and North Carolina, they have scaled the concept down by turning to an example closer to home - Sligo Creek.

Cole said Sligo is very similar to Willett Branch, as a channelized stream. Ordinarily, she explained, streams move within their stream valley as a way of naturally discharging energy. But with streams like Willett or Sligo, which run alongside roads, homes and trails, planners can't allow them to move. Hence, they end up as concrete channels.
Sligo Creek in
Silver Spring

"Sligo is really one of our success stories," Cole said. When Parks started the transformation of Sligo Creek, she recalled, they found only 2 individual fish in the water. Today, there are now thousands of fish, and 11 species in all.
A naturalized tributary of Sligo Creek
alongside Evans Parkway
Cole said planners do not want to rule out such a renaissance in Little Falls Stream. For that reason, they will use 6-inch drops in grade that are within the jumping ability of small fish.

A number of critics of the daylighting proposal have suggested that a revamped Willett Branch would only hold a trickle of water most of the time, and be an expensive eyesore as a result.

"It could be" more than just a trickle once naturalized, Cole said. "I don't know what it is going to look like yet," because the modeling and design phases of such a project haven't even begun, she said. Those will require funding, she said.

Once Parks can conduct testing to determine water flows, measure the water table, and study other existing factors, they will have a better sense of what the finished stream's characteristics will be.

One attendee asked about the "unintended consequences" of the proposal, such as "angry homeowners who will have water in their basements after this."

Cole said that wasn't likely to happen. A change that would bring the flood plain even an inch onto their property, much less into their basement, would require the written approval of homeowners to be built. She said the proposed plan will be designed to keep the stream within its banks in a 100-year flood event. Cole added that water flows will likely be reduced and slightly slower downstream from the Westbard development, as all new construction will require stormwater to be treated on-site, before it enters the stream.

There isn't any money for the project right now, Cole acknowledged. She said it's important to get the project into the sector plan at this point. Then, Parks can try to get the project into its Capital Improvements Program budget in a future year, she said.

Paul concurred, stressing that the recommendations in a sector plan "hold weight" later on. That's one of the points I made in my testimony before the Planning Board in September, as well. If they don't make a recommendation - for example - to deal with traffic congestion on River Road in the plan, such as an extra lane, chances are slim for getting such a project into a future CIP.

The negative aspects of the Little Falls Place townhome development indirectly came up when the topic of elements planners don't want to see in the future Willett Branch stream valley were discussed.

"Buildings in the stream valley." "Barriers to the stream valley." Both happen to apply to the townhome development, which was recently built on the banks of the stream, and has a fence along it. This was permitted because the project was grandfathered in from the 1982 plan.

Other ideas that should be rejected? Direct drains into the stream that pour untreated stormwater into it, roadway pavement in the stream valley, retaining walls alongside the stream, buried segments, and barriers that encourage illegal dumping of refuse.

Nelson noted another urgent issue with the current stream. It has no "owner," and many of its retaining walls "are coming to the end of their life," she warned. Planners who walked the stream have found many cracks, buckling, and structural issues, she said.

Another concern is that the biggest landowner, Equity One, is now asking the Planning Board to back off some of the recommendations the Draft Plan makes regarding the daylighting proposal.

In a September letter to the Planning Board, Equity One asked them to eliminate the recommendation of daylighting the stream along the Westwood Center II property, and to reduce the width of the stream buffer area recommended behind the Westwood Tower apartment building. There are now rumors that the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, which currently leases Westwood Tower from Equity One, would like to build a building or garage behind it.

Equity One is also asking that the land on which such stream-related improvements will be make be classified as "easements", rather than recommending outright dedication or acquisition by the County.

One attendee said some on the Planning Board are "caving" to the request, based on their comments at an October worksession.

"Is there anything that forces people to respect that [stream] buffer?" a resident asked.

Cole said the Planning Board makes that decision. It was noted that a similar thing happened in the EYA Little Falls Place project. EYA, which is partnered with Equity One in their Westbard redevelopment proposal, told the LFWA they would allow a 50 foot setback for the buildings at Little Falls Place. It ultimately ended up being 35 feet, which is not what LFWA endorsed in backing the townhome plan.

Paul said planners are going to focus most on the segment of Willett Branch between the Roof Center property and the CCT. That is the area where Parks hopes to acquire land for an urban recreational park. The ideal scenario, Paul said, is that landowners would "be willing sellers."

Of course, that largely depends upon what their land ends up being zoned for in the plan recommendations. One of the points I made strongly during the Little Falls Place/Hoyt Property debacle was that industrial/commercial properties along the Willett Branch should be kept as industrial. That would hold down their sale value, allowing the County to more easily acquire the land.

With the Hoyt property priced as industrial, the County could have acquired it and additional land along the stream to create a large park and stream buffer. Ideally, additional industrial land could have been acquired along Butler Road up to the gas stations on River Road (over time) to enlarge this further. It would have been far larger than any of the currently-proposed postage stamp pocket parks in the Draft Plan, and would have provided a refuge for wildlife in the area. The Hoyt outcome severely hobbles the potential of such a plan, but emphasizes why the zoning proposed in the plan will directly affect the potential to acquire parkland and buffer areas.

Morse exhorted attendees to write letters to the Council, Planning Board and Leggett.

Springfield Civic Association President Phyllis Edelman said supporting the Willett Branch proposal is important, because "we're not going to have a lot of positive [amenities in the current Draft Plan] for us. So we need this not just for our community, but for the community that will be built."

To see planners' proposal for Willett Branch from the current Draft Plan, click here.

If you want to email the specified officials, to tell them to support the daylighting plan for Willett Branch, here is where you can reach them:

Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson

Montgomery County Council

County Executive Ike Leggett

Dozier said that if everyone in the room sent just one email to each official, it would make a huge difference in the effort, which will determine "what our kids' neighborhoods will look like in the future."

I'd like to also have at least one major facility - i.e. a recreation center - and a significant park (not just a tiny, loud, skate park or green postage stamp) be added to the final Westbard Sector Plan. There are no County facilities in the Westbard area besides the Little Falls Library, and the area has been neglected for decades in that department.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

People should consult someone wise like Obama on environmental matters and take his advice.

Anonymous said...

Wow... comments here disappear faster than Stalin's commissars.

Anonymous said...

Legitimate media outlets don't delete comments on a whim.

Anonymous said...

I love the parade of old gray heads at the bottoms of the photos.