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Workforce Housing or Ballfields on Old School Sites?

Board of Education to discuss giving up two Potomac properties.

Two parcels of undeveloped land in Potomac which are currently owned by the Board of Education have been identified for possible use as affordable housing.

They’re not making any more land, as they say. So, as Montgomery County approaches build-out and many needs are unmet, the use for any undeveloped parcel becomes a zero-sum game.

Build a school and there’s not room for affordable housing. Build affordable housing and there’s no room for ball fields. Build ball fields, and there’s no room for something else.

The County Council has asked the Park and Planning Commission and the Department of Housing and Community Affairs to identify publicly owned land which could be used for affordable and special needs housing.

“About a year or so ago, we got an inventory of various sites,” said Elizabeth Davidson, director of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

The county wanted to find sites across the county which have a high potential for housing in the near term. Seven sites were identified.

In Potomac, which is sometimes cited for not having its “fair share” of affordable housing, two sites were identified — a 20-acre parcel on Brickyard Road set aside for a middle school and a 10-acre site on Kendale Road set aside for an elementary school.

“We were looking for relatively large sites that don’t have a lot of environmental or physical constraints,” Davidson said.

After the properties were identified by the county, County Executive Doug Duncan sent letters, dated Oct. 20, 2003, to School Superintendent Jerry Weast. Three letters were sent, one for each of the Potomac parcels and a third for a parcel on Edson Lane, near Old Georgetown in Bethesda.

“The Board [of Education] did not propose to revert them,” said Joe Lavorgna, director of the Department of Planning and Capital Programming for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Each letter states, “I am asking that the property be transferred to the county for development with affordable housing.”

It goes on to explain that the Department of Housing and Community Affairs has specific housing goals for each year, and that this site could assist in reaching these goals.

All three letters further state: “Based on information from your staff thus far, I understand that demographic projections indicate that there is little probability that another middle school will be needed in this part of the Potomac area.”

The Potomac Master plan states that if the land is declared as surplus by the Board of Education, it should be used for another public use, including parkland.

Affordable housing and parkland are really the only two “public uses” which are likely, said Callum Murray, Potomac team leader for Park and Planning.

The zoning code provides for “Opportunity Housing,” said Murray. “It must be either owned, operated, or under the sponsorship of the Housing Opportunities Commission,” Murray said.

Under this provision, the county could build housing at greater density than then one unit per two acres currently allowed.

The process would include several public hearings, and the end result is supposed to take into consideration compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, Murray said.

If the land were sold to a private person or individual, other uses, such as a private school would need a special exception, while something like a church might be able to go ahead with only building permits, depending on the way the lot is recorded in county land records.

During the recent revision of the annual growth policy, the school system asked the county to consider carefully allowing too much population growth in downcounty areas where there is little room for new school facilities.

Lavorgna explained that the areas under the most stress were those on the east side of Route 355 (Wisconsin Ave., or the Rockville Pike).

Parents disagree.

“All of our schools are overcrowded,” said Janis Sartucci, cluster coordinator for the Churchill PTA. “We have enough trailers on the ground to make a new elementary.” Sartucci added that Cabin John Middle School splits its graduates between Churchill and Wootton high schools.

“We don’t know what the future holds for this cluster other than growth,” Sartucci said. “I don’t think were at the point where we can say ‘we’ll never need it for a new school.’”

Lavorgna says that demographic projections indicate there will be little need for additional schools. Demographers take into account any development which has been granted Preliminary Plan approval by Park and Planning. They estimate how many children will live in the houses based upon statistical data and the kind of housing unit (single family, townhouse, apartment) which has been approved.

Parents are also upset at what they say is a lack of transparency. “The feasibility study is being conducted without our input,” said Julie Doran, president of the Potomac Elementary PTA.

The matter will be brought before the Board of Education in open session at a future meeting, it may appear on the Feb. 10 agenda, but currently it is not, said George Margolis, staff director for the Board of education.

Both Doran and Sartucci think the meeting should be open. “We would like to be at the table,” Sartucci said.

Sartucci is concerned with the land it self, not its disposition if it is given up. “What happens to the property is not a PTA issue. Our issue is whether they will be surplused.”

Residents near the Brickyard property share those concerns. “People here can’t understand why the school board would give up the last parcels of land,” said Charles Doran. Doran is the president of the Brickyard Citizen’s Association, but his opinions do not represent an official association position.

Doran refused to comment on the prospect of placing affordable housing on the site, even after being read Duncan’s letter. He said that the neighbors have heard several proposals about what could be placed on the land, including affordable housing or ball fields. “We’ve heard all kinds of alternate projects,” he said.

Doran will wait to see what the Board of Education does before commenting on what might go in on the site.

He also complained about a lack of participation in the process, and a lack of notification by the appropriate government agencies. “It’s all opaque,” Doran said. “Citizens don’t know what’s going on.”

A resident near the Kendale site pointed out that the road there is narrow, and would not be able to accommodate additional traffic generated by the extra housing units.

She thinks the county could sell the land and use it to finance projects in areas with better transportation infrastructure.

“I think it would be more cost effective to sell the land and have housing that’s more consistent with the neighborhood, given that it’s the most expensive subdivision in Montgomery County,” said Sue Keil.

Keil is also concerned about a potential negative impact on property values.

Another neighborhood resident, Gordon Smith of the builders Miller & Smith, says that there should be some market-rate units included in any development.

Smith said that from a social point of view, it is better not to have and area that can be identified as the low and moderate income people. “Then it becomes a sort of we-they situation,” Smith said.

If some market-rate units are included, it will make it virtually impossible to identify which residents are ,low income and which are not. “That’s one reason why you would want some that are market rate,” Smith said.

Bob Moorman, managing broker of WC & AN Miller Realtors, estimates that the land on Brickyard Road would be worth at least $800,000 for a two-acre portion of the land, or closer to $8 million for the 20 acres. “On Kendale, It’s could be worth a lot more than that,” Moorman said.

Moorman’s estimates consider only land, not the cost of a house.

The impact on property values from workforce housing would likely be minimal, said Moorman. “I don’t think it’s going to change the property value one iota,” Moorman said. “The end result will be there will be very nice homes.”