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Avenel Proposal: Helping or Hurting?

Residents tackle the stream restoration proposal from TPC at Avenel.

The West Montgomery County Citizens Association delved into the issue of Avenel’s golf course renovations at their monthly meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

Guest speaker Pamela Rowe, environmental planning coordinator for the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission, spoke to an audience eager to learn of the environmental impact of TPC at Avenel’s stream restoration plan.

“When I first saw the plan my hair stood straight up… but you have to keep in mind that this stream has been so altered over time,” said Rowe, who has worked for the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection and on a study of Watts Branch for the City of Rockville. In the county’s environmental division, she oversees projects in Potomac, Damascus and rural parts of Montgomery County.

“There’s pretty direct evidence that much of this area was totally demolished and left to lie and reform its own channel after gold mining operations in this area, so it’s a pretty altered stream valley,” she continued. “We would never consider this kind of approach in a more natural [undisturbed] stream area in the county.”

The golf course, which is situated in the Rock Run stream valley, was originally approved in 1984 before many of the current environmental regulations were instituted. Avenel provided what were considered at the time fairly innovative stormwater management controls, such as ponds at the golf course. However, the stream buffer encroachment that resulted from the development led the county to establish more stringent regulations.

“We have to deal with what we’ve got, which is a golf course in a stream valley – not just near the stream valley but in it,” said Rowe. “In terms of best management practices, [today] we would say ‘Don’t put your golf course in a stream valley.’”

Nevertheless, Rowe said she has been pleased overall with Avenel’s proposal, which seeks to re-create a floodplain adjacent to the stream by excavating sediment that has built up because of human intervention and pollution. Excavating two-to-four feet of sediment in parts of the flood plain would create a wetland environment that better absorbs floodwaters. Avenel wants to hire environmental engineers to plant wetland grasses and shrubs to create a more permeable surface that slows down stormwater. They also plan to add wetland fringe to their existing ponds and the section where Rock Run re-enters the property at the south end of the course. Avenel plans to clear nearly an acre (0.86 acres) of forest but is replanting 11.3 acres. Rowe said that the county will place the reforested areas in conservation easements and monitor them.

AS IN PREVIOUS community meetings about Avenel, local residents were most concerned about the proposed alterations to Rock Run itself. Members of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association bristled at Avenel’s proposal to move the stream channel where a tight bend in Rock Run Creek threatens to damage the golf course property.

“Is it normal to allow applicants on projects to re-channel streams?” asked Ginny Barnes, environmental chair of the West Montgomery Citizens Association. “I find that a very extreme thing to be asking.”

Rowe said the county is considering Avenel’s proposal because of its restorative features.

“We wouldn’t allow someone to come in and re-channel a stream if wasn’t going to have some sort of environment restoration aspect to it,” she said. “There are projects, even some of the county’s own projects, where they went in and took out meander bends that were highly erodable, so it’s not unheard of to go in and do it.”

Rowe tried to assure the crowd of environmentalists that Avenel would be held to rigorous standards.

“We’re not so interested in the [golf] course as in seeing that the work they do is true restorative work for the stream,” she said. “That’s the standard we’ve been holding them to.”

Chuck Doran, president of the Brickyard Citizens Association, said he is concerned about Avenel’s plans to “self-monitor” the stream restoration they undertake. He made a proposal at the Board of Appeals hearing on Monday suggesting that a board made up of citizens from local associations have the power to monitor Avenel’s restoration success periodically. He said Avenel seemed receptive but has made no formal promises.

“We talked to environmentalists and they said [the success of the restoration] depends on who does the work and how well they do it,” he said. “We are fooling ourselves if we think there’s not going to be massive change to this area.”

Doran encouraged the West Montgomery County Citizens Association to join forces with Brickyard and others in bargaining with Avenel on the details of their proposal.

“If this project can be a catalyst to start an effort to restore Rock Run, go for it,” she said. “Right now the County Council is receptive.”

IN OTHER BUSINESS, the West Montgomery County Citizens Association also discussed a proposal for a spa and wellness center at the site of a vacant bed and breakfast on the Furman property in the village adjacent to Giant Foods. The property encroaches on the headwaters to Rock Run.

“It’s a developable property with an existing structure and parking lot within the stream buffer,” said Rowe. “It’s a challenge to figure out what they can do and how they can do it on the site. There is community concern about the existing structures remaining vacant.”

She said that further development of the property would require a zoning change or special exception. Development of the property would encroach on the stream buffer, which takes up the entire access point onto the property.

The association members also expressed concern about the use of culverts by the state highway administration on River Road near the intersection with Falls Road.

Ginny Barnes said she was shocked to see 13 large culverts, each about 5 feet tall and 15 feet long, waiting to be installed to channel water.

“You can’t run culverts that long and that big and expect anything to live in the stream,” she said. “As the headwater of Rock Run, I would think we’d want a little life to be moving down into Rock Run.”

Rowe questioned whether the highway workers were carrying out the project as it was originally intended. She suggested that the association contact the county’s division of transportation and planning to jumpstart more oversight.

“I think it’s highly unlikely the staff would have recommended approval of what you’re describing,” she said.