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Cashing In Old Dunham's Garage

A new banking facility at a historic Village site raises questions and concerns.

In its years of existence, the property at 9916 Falls Road has always been associated with transportation and automobiles. In its newest incarnation as a rumored drive-through ATM facility, that tradition will continue, but the effects of its operations at an already busy intersection remain to be seen.

Renovation began earlier this year on the building that most recently housed Cherner Classics, a rare and used car dealership. Construction has progressed swiftly behind the chain link fence that borders the construction site.

Chevy Chase Bank bought what used to be Dunham’s Garage from Cherner Automotive in 2003, but Cherner remained until January of this year when the bank began the process of converting the building. Before Cherner sold rare and classic automobiles on the site for ten years, the building was run by the Dunham family who operated a filling station and car repair service opened by Al Dunham in 1951. Prior to that the building was also a service garage, and before that it was a blacksmith’s shop that worked on wagons that passed through the area when the area was traversed by dirt roads.

The building’s exact age is unclear, but because of its historic nature the bank intended from the outset to maintain the original structure, said George Barnes of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.

Chevy Chase Bank got approval from the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services to change the building over to a drive-through ATM facility when they were issued in January of this year.

Callum Murray, Potomac Team Leader of the Montgomery County Planning Board’s planning staff, said the project should have been reviewed by the Planning Board.

“As far as I’m concerned something that requires a drive-through is sufficient to require preliminary plan approval,” Murray said. Such an approval process would have looked at the potential impact on traffic that such a facility would have, said Murray. It also would have opened up the door for public input, but the review by the Planning Board was not mandatory because there were no additions to the structure itself, and no new structures were being built, Murray said.

Still, in cases such as these where the purpose of a structure changes significantly, it is not uncommon for the Department of Permitting Services to pass the plans to the Planning Board for review and approval, said Murray. As it is, the county’s permitting office decided that such a review was not needed and there was no opportunity for public input.

“There isn’t much that anybody could do about it; they bought the property outright,” said Barnes. Because the bank was not required to go through the Planning Board, residents had no chance to express their views on the project.

“There wasn’t any opportunity to really have much dialogue with them,” Barnes said.

“The whole thing happened so quickly and so quietly,” said Allan Cohen of Potomac.

REGGIE JETTER, the director of the Department of Permitting Services, said that the procedures that went into reviewing and approving the necessary permits for the new banking facility were standard.

“Generally if someone wants to come in and change a use [of a building] they will apply for building permit and a use and occupancy permit,” Jetter said. “When you’re applying for a building permit and changing the use, there is a zoning review that is also a part of that.”

That happened in this circumstance. The building was zoned C-1, a commercial classification that permits both its former use as a garage and showroom — as well as a drive-through banking facility, Jetter said.

Because there were no additions to the building that would change its footprint — only internal renovations were done on the building, Jetter said — permit 440700 was issued on Jan. 12, 2007 to begin alterations to the structure. Jetter said that if the building were located in a zone that required site plan approval, or if the occupant wanted to amend the site plan, then the matter would have been passed on to Murray’s office, but that was not the case here, Jetter said. The staffer who reviewed the permit did not think that it was necessary to have the Planning Board review the project before the permit was issued to begin construction and Jetter said that was the correct decision.

FROM THE outward appearance of the building four car-sized openings are visible. and construction appears to be nearing completion. Though Chevy Chase officials did not comment for this story or provide details of the building’s plans, construction personnel on-site said that traffic will enter from Falls Road and loop around behind the building before passing through one of the four ports and turning back out onto Falls Road. Those personnel had no word on when construction would be completed, although they said that it could be as late as December 2007.

Sarah Navid of the Department of Permitting Services said that her office conducts traffic studies in cases where a permit applicant’s plans will affect the flow of traffic on county roads near the project. Because Falls Road is a state road Navid said that any traffic study would be left up to the State Highway Administration, although that study would be conducted only at the request of the county’s permitting office.

Chuck Gischlar, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said that a traffic study was done by Chevy Chase Bank and reviewed by state highway officials.

"We're working with them to modify some accesses," Gischlar said, though he did not have specifics on the project or what those accesses were.

ONE PARTICULAR concern that some residents wanted to have addressed is the removal of what is often referred to as the “Dunham Jog.” As westbound Falls Road enters Potomac Village the road widens from one lane to two; just beyond the former Dunham property the road widens again to allow a short turning lane onto River Road .

Both directions of Falls Road to the east of the intersection with River Road were altered three years ago in an effort to alleviate congestion at the busy intersection. Frontage was taken from the Potomac Village shopping center property across from what was then Cherner Classics, and the median was removed to install a center turning lane; the Cherners successfully petitioned the State Highway Administration to keep their frontage. Elie Cain, who co-owns the property that did give up some its frontage, said that at the time state officials assured her and other citizens that when the Cherners sold their property the matter would be addressed.

Cain said that she was very pleased with how the renovation of the intersection turned out at the time, but that the Dunham Jog should go.

“It would be nice to have a full-turn lane there and it should be there,” said Cain. “It’s time for the other side to give their share like they’re supposed to.”

“We have always felt that the road should be straightened there; the community has always been supportive of that,” Cohen said. “We had hoped that whoever bought this property, it would once and for all be [a] straight curb. It would definitely be easier for everyone who uses it — it would look better too.”

Officials from Chevy Chase Bank did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Cain said that if the jog isn’t addressed now that the property is being converted, it likely won’t happen anytime soon.

“Once you get the project in there and people settled, it’s going to be a cold day before that gets done,” Cain said.