A drive down Glen Road is an instant time portal into a time not long ago when the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. were outposts in a rural land marked by rolling hills of farmland cut through by streams that eventually feed the Potomac River.
Turning off of Falls Road one soon passes Wayside Elementary School, then heads downhill where the road winds through a dense canopy of trees to a bridged intersection with South Glen Road atop a split of the Watts Branch stream. Firmly in an area known as the Glen, a turn in either direction from that intersection sends a driver down narrow roads best taken slowly to ensure that two cars can pass one another in opposing directions, and to give the driver a chance to appreciate the rolling hills, and large, ambling estates that once defined Potomac.
The maintenance of this rural character lies at the heart of the major issues that define Potomac. The outward suburban spread has turned much of Potomac’s old country into sprawling new homes and upscale subdivisions in recent decades, yet the roads that service all of Potomac are all two lanes wide (except at some major intersections), a County policy mandated to preserve the areas rustic history.
"One of the qualities that makes Potomac unique is its commitment to preserving its heritage, a heritage rooted in a rural tradition," said Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner, a Potomac resident and the District 1 (Potomac, Bethesda, Chevy Chase) representative to the Council.
IT IS THE BALANCE between the constant push of suburban sprawl and the desire to protect the rustic, small-town character of Potomac that defines the town’s major issues. Nowhere is this better epitomized than an ongoing attempt in North Potomac to extend a sewer line to the Potomac Oak shopping center. The center’s owners, long-time Potomac residents Guy Semmes and Michael Denker, hope to revitalize what has historically been a community nexus – the bygone town of Travilah had its town hall located in the same area – and want to expand the center and attract new tenants to it to do so but believe that they are unable to do so unless they can increase the facility’s waste capacity.
Conversely, opponents say that extending a sewer line to the property would set a dangerous precedent. In particular, the proposal flies in the face of the Potomac Subregion Master Plan, which was adopted by the Montgomery County Planning Board and the County Council first in 1980 and amended in 2002, said George Barnes recently. Barnes is a board member of the West Montgomery Citizens Association, a group that frequently finds itself in the midst of such battles. Much of Potomac – particularly North Potomac – relies on septic systems instead of sewer. That has helped maintain, at least to an extent, the rural, quiet nature of much of Potomac through the years and is key to continuing to do so, said Barnes, who has studied local zoning and land use issues for years.
If approved, private residents, businesses and residential developers in Potomac, North Potomac, and nearby Gaithersburg and Darnestown would need only to cite Semmes and Denker’s project as justification for why their requests should be approved, and the Council would have a hard time disagreeing, Barnes said.
"Some other commercial interest or people in Darnestown are going to say, ‘What do you mean? What’s the problem with doing it for us? You did it for them,’" said Barnes. "That’s just always going to be the basic problem. Once you allow something like that you have essentially broken the Master Plan."
ANOTHER PROPOSAL related to waste disposal earlier rankled opponents earlier this year who similarly rallied behind the warning of dangerous precedent-setting. The Planning Board in January approved a new subdivision in North Potomac on a parcel of land known as the Sutton property that will be the first in the County to rely on sandmound septic systems for waste treatment. The Planning Board is part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and oversees land use in Montgomery County.
Many upcounty areas – including large swaths of Potomac and North Potomac – lay outside of what is known as the sewer envelope, or the area served by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s (WSSC) sewer system. Yet many of these places do not pass percolation tests and are not suitable to the County’s standards to install septic systems.
Enter sandmounds, a relatively new technology in which waste is pre-treated before being pumped into tractor-trailer-sized, grass-covered mounds of sand where it can break down further. Opponents to the plan feared what could happen if these sandmounds broke down and waste began to seep away from the mounds.
Consultants to the plan’s developers and County officials alike repeatedly said that sandmounds have a lifespan of twenty to twenty-five years and do not have a history of breaking down. Not all of the board’s commissioners were convinced, but the proposal was approved.
Opponents said beforehand and afterwards that the decision would open the door for new subdivisions in previously low-density areas.
"It’s not just the adjoining properties, its all over the county," said Tom Moseley, an organic tree farmer who lives next door to the Sutton property in a hearing on the issue late last year. "If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere," he said.
SIMILAR CONCERNS SURROUND a planned expansion of the 4th Presbyterian School on South Glen Road and a proposed inn/restaurant facility on River Road (coincidentally directly across the road from the WSSC intake plant).
The 4th Presbyterian School is set to break ground on a new facility later this summer that would eventually triple its current 96-student enrollment. That increase in student population would add traffic to an already busy road, particularly during high-volume traffic hours in the morning and afternoon rush hours. School officials have suggested adding deceleration and acceleration lanes to the west-bound side of the road, but some residents have opposed the idea because of its alteration of a typically rustic Potomac road. Neighbors fear the construction and operation of the larger facility will increase noise and light pollution in their quiet neighborhoods.
Francis Koh and his family want to turn the property they own on River Road into a inn/restaurant hybrid facility where residents could enjoy an upscale dining experience and stay the night – or multiple nights – in a quaint inn environment. The first step in their plan is to have their property rezoned from residential use to a Country Inn zone designation. The red tape involved in such a conversion creates an uphill battle for any applicant, but the Kohs have been met with neighbors and citizens who fear the operation would be highly out of character with the quiet, residential atmosphere that defines that area.
After his initial proposal was turned down by the Planning Board earlier this year, Koh complained that seemingly any type of new construction would always be opposed in Potomac.
"A lot of [people], I think if you tried to propose anything they would challenge it," he said at the time.
The Kohs met last month with members of the community as they try to build community support before they take their revised plan back to the board for another attempt at approval. The meeting was characterized coldly the residents who attended.
"We all pay top dollar for our homes and this is going to ruin it in every way you can imagine," said one man who lives near the Koh’s property.
ANY PROPOSED EXPANSION – be it residential or commercial – will have to pass County standards for environmental protection and mitigation, not to mention intense public scrutiny of those intentions.
Many citizens have lobbied the Montgomery County Council for a tree ordinance that would regulate the removal of any tree on residential lots of any size. The matter was most recently debated earlier this year as the County Council weighed proposed revisions to its Forest Conservation Law, which regulates the removal of forest on lots larger than 10,000 square feet in size. Many urged the Council to add a tree ordinance to any amendments to the Forest Conservation Law.
The tree ordinance met with strong opposition from the development community and citizens who cited property rights, as did proposed changes to the Forest Conservation Law to make it applicable to lots 5,000 square feet in size, and possibly smaller lots as well.
The Planning Board and County Council have been weighing separate proposals that would strengthen the current Forest Conservation Law for over a year, but the Council, which ultimately will approve the new law, has yet to reconcile the two different proposals. A hearing before the County’s Transportation and Environment Committee could take place either in late July or when the Council returns from its August recess.
While many have pushed for a tree ordinance to be included in the bill, indications have been that such a possibility is not likely and that if it is to pass it will be in the future as its own separate measure.
SIMILARLY, NO PROPOSED expansion or new development of any type can be had without strong consideration to the impact on the local watershed. The Forest Conservation Law is designed to stem the tide in tree loss that much of the County’s tree cover in the last 40 years. The impact of that tree loss has been felt nowhere more acutely than in local watersheds, whose health has declined steadily as well. Without trees and vegetation to filter and slow stormwater runoff, streams become inundated with dirt, pesticides, fertilizers, pet excrement, motor oils and anything else that makes its way onto roads, sidewalks and yards before it is washed away by rain. The ultimate result has been devastating not just to the local watersheds, but also to the health and the Chesapeake Bay. Numerous studies have documented the steady downward decline to the near-desperate states that they now are in.
The County has taken measures in recent years to try to regulate stormwater runoff and development tactics have shifted from treating runoff in enormous basins to on-site treatment through a variety of smaller filtration techniques. Strengthening storm water management laws is difficult because coming up with quantifiable measurements is a challenging task.
Like all things in Potomac, it will take time, commitment, and citizen involvement, and governmental execution.