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Strong Words But No Decision on Historic Ash

Planning board grants deferral on request that would affect 200-year-old tree.

In the end, a more-than-one-hour Planning Board hearing on redeveloping the site of a five-foot diameter tree didn’t matter much.

REAL ESTATE developer Kevin Smart, president of Premiere Homes, applied to amend a forest conservation plan governing a lot at 12925 Circle Drive, near Glen Mill Road in Potomac, allowing him to tear down the existing house and build a new house on the site.

Following a staff report, testimony from Smart and his representatives, and testimony from 10 members of the public at the Sept. 29 hearing, the Planning Board reached this conclusion: Smart’s plan wasn’t a plan at all.

“This is not a plan,” said Planning Board Vice Chair Wendy Purdue. “This is a plan to make a plan, with massive delegation to staff. I don’t have any interest in approving a plan to make a plan.”

Purdue reiterated at least five times that she had not seen an actual plan for the site. She said that the applicant could defer his application and come back later with an actual plan, which she would evaluate on its merits at that time.

Smart and his attorney promptly requested a deferral, which the Board granted in a 4-0 vote.

Commissioner Allison Bryant recused himself from the proceedings because he briefly lived in a rental property belonging to Smart.

Smart, a resident of Circle Drive, applied in 1998 to subdivide the 2.5-acre lot at 12925 Circle Drive. This allowed him to build a new house on the portion of the lot closest to the road while leaving the rear half of the lot—the site of the tree and a small white house constructed in 1900—intact.

The Planning Board granted the subdivision, but included as conditions the current forest conservation plan, which prevents construction near the 200-plus-year-old tree, and a category II conservation easement with more stringent protection measures.

Beginning earlier this year, Smart first submitted a forest conservation exemption request that would allow new construction while protecting the tree. He then submitted a plan with an arborist's report stating that due to issues placing the septic system, building on the site and saving the tree would be impossible. The third plan, submitted last month and at issue in the hearing last week, again calls for saving the tree.

The plan included statements about fencing, root pruning, and application of a growth-regulating chemical that fortifies older trees, but was criticized for lack of specificity.

“WE THINK in concept it could be done. … We think that a house could be constructed and the tree could be protected,” said planner Candy Bunnag, “but we think extraordinary measures would be needed to keep the tree protected—and I want to emphasize extraordinary.”

Planning Board staff recommended approval of the proposed plan amendment, but only when tied to a list of 11 conditions that included the subsequent development of a demolition plan for the existing house and a construction plan for any new house on the site.

That recommendation drew fire from community members who testified and from Planning Board members.

The criticisms were marked by implicit comparisons to the planning fiasco in Clarksburg, where a citizen group uncovered hundreds of height and setback violations in new developments. The violations were largely the result of a decision-making process that, after initial Board approval, is out of public view.

“THE ELEMENT of the public process is missing here, and it is critical,” Commissioner Meredith Wellington said of the Circle Drive plan. “We’re not talking about just listing categories with huge amounts of detail and work that’ll be done in a separate proceeding that no one sees and is not reviewed. … I find that very distressful. I didn’t think we’d be seeing that kind of thing and I hope I don’t see it anymore.”

The staff recommendation of approval with such extensive conditions was absurd, said Susanne Lee, land use chair for the West Montgomery County Citizens Association. The conditions called for essential information that should have been made available for the hearing, she said.

“Have you ever seen one that requires them to submit so much stuff after the hearing? … If he wants to come back with a whole new plan, with all the information that you need to make a decision, that’s fine,” Lee said. “We hope you won’t let him muss around and start making deals. …  It’ll be terrible for us to have to monitor that, and we shouldn’t have to.”

As part of its opposition to the plan, West Montgomery hired an arborist, who stated that saving the ash would be impossible under the proposal before the board.

“If it goes forward in this way, this tree will certainly die,” said Keith Pitchford, the arborist, citing damage to more than 50 percent of the tree’s critical root zone and incursions into an even more sensitive area called the minimum clearance zone, which contains the tree’s large, woody “scaffold” roots.

“There is just no way that this tree is going to survive this kind of impact. Absolutely no way,” he said.

“I’d like to say that I also am a lifelong resident of Montgomery County and I’ve played on this tree when I was in fourth grade. This is my neighborhood. So I really do want to save the tree,” Smart said in one of his few statements before the Board.

He declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that he did not wish to denigrate Park and Planning.