In contrast to the April WRAC meeting, which saw a packed room including three members of the Montgomery County Council and numerous citizens, the May meeting was slightly more subdued, yet the topics discussed – predatory towing and Costco’s gas station special exception request – garnered a similar level of passionate debate and discussion.
Rob Klein, manager of the Redevelopment Program for the Department of General Services, first offered a brief redevelopment report that included updates on Parking Lot 13 (where recent drill tests did not reveal any significant obstructions to construction) and completion by Lowe Enterprises of the sketch plan phase for the “Computer Building” located at 11141 Georgia Avenue.
Klein also announced a Parks & Planning meeting on May 21 about accessory apartments in Montgomery County, a topic that WRAC has previously discussed and agreed to support via a letter.
While acknowledging that predatory towing is a countywide issue, Mid-County Regional Services Center Director Ana Lopez van Balen described the complicated set-up of parking in Wheaton, and how it contributes to the ongoing towing problem in Wheaton’s Central Business District.
Property owners designate specific parking spaces for individual businesses; therefore, customers who patronize a business right next door are technically “walk-offs,” which is grounds for towing. Signage indicating the parking policies is supposed to be on every single spot, as well as at the entrance to the parking area.
The police are supposed to be called prior to a tow, which is supposed to be authorized by the business owner, yet many cars are being towed after business hours. Also, legally, if a vehicle is on the truck’s hook, but has not begun moving, the car owner can retrieve the vehicle for $50.
Many WRAC members shared anecdotal tales of seeing people who are watching others for violations, then reporting the incident to tow truck drivers idling in the area. Van Balen is working to educate businesses and building owners about the actual rules of parking and towing in Wheaton. She also brought in the Office of Consumer Protection to train the Clean and Safe Team to educate the public. Van Balen has also reached out to Congressman Chris Van Hollen—who himself has been towed in Wheaton—for support.
Costco’s Gas Station Special Exception
Tom Martin, who heads up WRAC’s planning and visioning subcommittee, updated the full committee on his group’s discussion about WRAC’s position on Costco’s application for a special exemption to build a fueling station at their Westfield Wheaton site.
Martin described the split nature of his group, and that while the vote was 3-to-1 to not offer any opinion or testimony to the planning board, he also said that he believes that “saying nothing will be perceived as support of the special exception.”
This led to a spirited discussion between several WRAC members, most notably Patrick Naehu, who referred to WRAC’s mission statement, which calls for "a Wheaton that becomes a walkable community through smart growth that is environmentally friendly.” He is not in favor of supporting the gas station, based on his interpretation of the mission statement and the fact that no sizable community associations have spoken out in favor of the special exception, he said.
Other WRAC members questioned whether the fueling station would have a positive impact of property values, and whether it would attract new development, commercial or residential. Ultimately, Martin made a motion that WRAC vote to stay neutral on the issue, but to write a letter of testimony to the planning board explaining why they are neutral on the issue.