Two of the larger issues facing the Wheaton community took center stage at Wednesday's Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee meeting: the recently approved plans for Wheaton Redevelopment (in a straw vote by the Montgomery County Council) and the proposed special exception for a Costco gas station.
Echoing sentiments expressed during an April 10 Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee meeting, WRAC members aired their frustration over the process that led to the Montgomery County Council tentatively approving a Wheaton Redevelopment Plan that includes a new M-NCPPC headquarters office building and a town square.
Councilmember Hans Reimer shared his opinions and concerns about how things will move forward with Wheaton Redevelopment. “The overall concern I have now is to keep it [redevelopment] going,” said Reimer. “Wheaton revitalization started with Doug Duncan and continued with Executive Leggett.”
Reimer then proposed the creation of an ad hoc committee that would devise a plan to keep redevelopment going.
“I’m here to ask you to stay involved. We have a big agenda ahead of us, and your participation is needed," he said. "I hope that the council can count on your support.”
Reimer’s request was initially met with an awkward silence, soon followed by questions about the council’s level of knowledge of WRAC activities, led by WRAC member Chelsea Johnson.
“In the past one-and-a-half years, we’ve had many brainstorming sessions and all of the information went to [B.F.] Saul," Johnson said. “It would be nice if some of that was captured and made its way to the council.”
Johnson’s statement seemed to open the door for the expression of stronger opinions, focusing mainly on how the council made its decision.
“I’m seeing disengagement here, since the representative government isn’t doing what the people want,“ said Michael Kallens, another WRAC member. “You came here after the fact, why weren’t you here before?"
Reimer apologized and explained the council’s obligation to balance the opinions of committees like WRAC with other groups involved, and the tax-paying public.
Incensed by Reimer’s apology, WRAC member Joseph Capuano declared, “You said 'sorry if you feel ignored.' We are ignored. I feel angry when I look at the way you did business, and I feel sickened...I will personally oppose every single member of the council...I appreciate you being here, but at what point did anyone reach out to this committee where we all volunteer time? I didn’t get involved so all this would be ignored.”
Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Nancy Floreen entered the meeting at that point; they both tried to mollify the committee and refocus the discussion on the positive aspects of the approved plan.
“I know you feel as if all your hard work hasn’t been valued; you have been involved for a long time," Floreen said. “It feels like the rug got pulled up – we all really regret that from our perspective.”
“I hope we build as much office space as possible, not residential that empties out at 9:00 a.m.,” Elrich said. “Please don’t look at this as sabotage. We want feet on the ground, and we’ll get there with redevelopment.”
Floreen added that it "sounds like you want better communication with the council – let us see what we can do.”
WRAC chair Jonathan Fink ended the discussion by thanking the three councilmembers for their attendance, but he too seemed disappointed.
“The council’s action seems to speak of lack of vision, and we have to accept that the council proposal has less risk than a private-public partnership," he said. “The vision for Wheaton seems to be more limited than White Flint – an atmosphere that is disappointing.”
Costco and the Gas Station Special Exception Process
WRAC and members of the community, which included representatives from the Kensington Heights Civic Association, viewed a presentation about Costco’s proposed special exception for a fueling station at the Westfield Wheaton location.
Costco’s Erich Brann described the location of the proposed gas station, shared the company’s safety record and outlined their efforts to ensure the safety of surrounding neighborhoods if the gas station plans go through.
Members of WRAC and KHCA expressed concerns about the true need of the station, to which Brann responded that Costco has determined a need based on criteria in standards established by the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. He went on further to explain that “this doesn’t mean that it is a necessity, simply that there is a hole in the market that will be filled by this.”
When WRAC chair Jonathan Fink asked how many gas stations were in the area already, Brann was unable to answer. Karen Cordry of the KHCA quickly responded with a loud “30!”
Mary Carter works at the Stephen Knolls School, which serves students with special needs and is located approximately 1,000 feet from the site of the proposed gas station.
"I am very concerned about the potential impact of increased traffic where our students walk a path from the school to the food court at the mall," she said.
Other community members expressed concerns about the volume of fumes from vehicles idling in 90-degree summer heat as they wait to get gas, as well as the potential increase in traffic on local roads.
Cordry ended the discussion by expressing a contrary opinion on the Costco’s interpretation of the Needs Standard. “I’ve been reading the need study and disagree with your interpretation of the legal terms in the Needs Standard,” she said. “The study doesn’t show need. Costco is doing all they can to mitigate the issue, but this is like putting lipstick on a pig – it is still a pig.”
Fink referred the matter to WRAC's project review subcommittee.