The Montgomery County Council voted yesterday to approve the Wheaton Central Business District and Vicinity Sector Plan, a document that will guide redevelopment in Wheaton for at least the next decade.
The council followed up on discussion from its previous worksession about how the sector plan should address the green buffer zone between the Wheaton mall and the Kensington Heights neighborhood.
Environmental groups such as the Audubon Naturalist Society had urged the council to protect and expand the five-acre green buffer zone using the sector plan.
But Planning Board Chairman Françoise Carrier told the council that the sector plan does not offer a mechanism for legally enforceable protection of the buffer zone. It is only a guidance document for future redevelopment, she said.
The planning department and the county council staff objected to using the term “forest buffer”--preferred by Audubon--since not all of the buffer meets the county’s technical conditions for a forest.
County planners are still in the process of documenting what percentage of the green buffer is forested.
Marlene Michaelson, the senior legislative analyst in charge of presenting the final draft of sector plan changes to the council, explained that omitting the term “forest” makes it clear that the sector plan seeks to protect the entire green buffer zone, not only its forested section.
Audubon had requested “permanent, legal” protection of the buffer zone, but councilmembers raised questions of whether this would preclude building a sound wall in the future or developing paved bike paths.
“If you want walking trails or paved areas, that might be a slightly different vision than saying that the primary purpose here is to preserve trees and forest,” Michaelson responded.
With regard to a sound wall, Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At Large) pointed out that the sloped terrain would make a sound wall in the buffer zone impractical. In order to function, the sound wall would have to be constructed at the top of the hill, near the Ring Road on the Westfield property.
Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At large) said he sympathized with the community members who wanted certainty that the buffer zone would be preserved. But he added that he did not know whether the council could offer them that certainty.
Environmental groups and the county planners also disagreed over whether to include the buffer zone in all of the maps that accompany the sector plan text.
The county council staff initially recommended only including the buffer on the natural systems map.
“Having it on five different maps doesn’t make it any stronger,” county planner Khalid Afzal said.
But Councilmember Elrich remarked on the buffer’s size and importance in Wheaton and supported a clear delineation on multiple maps.
The council staff then changed its position to allow for the buffer’s inclusion on the land use and zoning map as well.
"The language that made it in is very weak, so we got half of what we asked for in a watered-down fashion, but I will sleep better at night knowing that the existing trees will be at least somewhat protected, along with our peace of mind and property values," Danila Sheveiko, a member of the Kensington Heights Civic Association, wrote in an email after the sector plan passed.
The final language that the council adopted regarding the buffer is below:
Preserve the existing green buffer area in its entirety, which is currently approximately five acres in size and 30 feet to 200 feet in depth, along the property’s southern edge between the residential community and the Mall ring road to reduce the impact of new development on adjacent residential areas and the nearby school and to contribute to the protection and restoration of the Sligo Creek and Rock Creek watersheds. All existing forested areas should be maintained as forest. Consider the establishment of a conservation easement for the buffer zone and enhancement of the existing buffer area with additional plantings and landscaping through the regulatory process, as applicable. Explore opportunities for expansion of the existing buffer area as future major redevelopment occurs on the Mall site. This will help improve the health of the watershed by reducing impervious surfaces and will provide a better transition between the Mall site and the adjoining residential community. Explore the option of a multi-functional green infrastructure shared use path with rows of trees and rain gardens in the section of the ring road adjacent to the existing buffer area. Also consider additional shared use path connections through the buffer to the neighboring community.
· No structure should be allowed within the buffer zone. For areas outside the buffer zone, within 200 feet from the southern property line along the ring road, limit building height to a maximum of 45 feet, to create a compatible transition.