The Montgomery County Planning Board was too clever by half, approving the Equity One Westbard sketch plan despite an unresolved controversy over an African-American cemetery by temporarily removing the parcel where it is located from the plan. An immediate question for me, when this "solution" was proposed a couple of weeks ago, was, "is this legal?" After all, how does removing the major plan elements of that Westwood Tower site - with multiple buildings, traffic and environmental impacts, a major chunk of the Willett Branch and stream buffer, and the largest portion of affordable housing in Equity One's plan - allow you to approve the sketch plan without them?
In fact, the description of what a sketch plan does released by the Planning Department states that it is all about these very sorts of plan elements. It seems I was correct in my assessment, as the issue came up during the sketch plan hearing last Thursday, as did a last minute document submission by Equity One.
Click here to read Part I: "Enough is Enough"
Click here to read Part II: "A Ton of Other Benefits"
Attorney Michele Rosenfeld, who is representing a group of residents in a lawsuit against Montgomery County over the Westbard sector plan, admonished the Planning Board for its cafeteria approach to the sketch plan Thursday. The application was supposed to be considered as "a single sketch plan, not in a piecemeal fashion, as it is being presented today," she said.
As examples, Rosenfeld pointed to the fact that a major portion of the Willett Branch greenway was within the excluded site, "yet it is a core component of the recommendations of the sector plan," she said. And that a critical pedestrian linkage between Westbard Avenue and River Road through the Westwood Tower site also was in the hashed-out area of the map.
Those two features alone are covered under the main purposes of a sketch plan, in the Planning Department's own words: "locations of public uses and their relationship to existing and proposed properties. A sketch plan shows circulation patterns and describes the public benefits."
A sketch plan also "describes...the phasing of the development," which certainly couldn't be shown in the sketch plan approved Thursday, because it was not known at the time of the vote when the Westwood Tower site would be developed - if at all, given the known cemetery issues.
And how was the board able to give Equity One credit for the affordable housing on the Westwood Tower site, when it not only wasn't in the sketch plan approved Thursday, but might not even be able to be built due to the cemetery? "You need to take the [Westwood Tower site] density out of what you approve today," Bethesda resident and Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights member Bob Cope advised the board. Like Rosenfeld, he criticized the board's move to approve a plan missing several key elements. "You cannot do that," he warned.
"The board is not in a position to find conformance to the sector plan," Rosenfeld testified, calling it a premature "rush to judgement. It should be denied." Rosenfeld also protested a last minute letter filed by Equity One less than 24 hours before the hearing. Planning Board rules state that any document received less than 24 hours before the start of the hearing will not be part of the official record. Rosenfeld requested the board strike the letter from the record, a request later denied by board chair Casey Anderson, who astonishingly suggested he had the authority to override the board's own rules in that regard.