Friday, March 14, 2014


After a ponderous, hours-long hearing, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the site plan for a 30,000 foot expansion of the existing Home Depot store on Georgia Avenue in Aspen Hill. In the process, we got a bit of a preview for how some in the county feel Aspen Hill should be "remade" in the next few decades.

The board imposed some conditions recommended by staff, which were modified over the course of the hearing. Ultimately, Home Depot could be forced to give up 25 feet of its property along Georgia and Connecticut Avenues, to accommodate a potentially-meandering 8' "multi-use path." The store will also have to fund a traffic signal study for the property's existing access point off of Georgia Avenue, even though the MD State Highway Administration and planning staff acknowledge the existing intersection is too close to another signal to qualify for one of its own. But state highway officials said the study is the only way to determine if lesser traffic measures are warranted for the intersection. Other conditions include requiring 8 secure bike parking facilities, which Home Depot already provides employees now.

One condition was dropped entirely. A recommendation that the Georgia entrance crosswalk be moved closer to the road was debated among commissioners. Eventually, board members Norman Dreyfuss, Amy Presley and Marye Wells-Harley concluded it was unnecessary, forming a majority. Commissioner Casey Anderson argued strongly that moving the crosswalk closer to Georgia Avenue would greatly improve safety, making pedestrians more visible to drivers before they start turning into the driveway there.

A lengthy debate over the proposed path took up the most time. Home Depot argued that the demand it allow a path out front was not justified, given that the store is simply building the additional square footage it originally asked for in 1995. Such a path would almost certainly disturb the natural topography of the green space in front of the property, as well as disrupt existing stormwater drainage. It also would degrade the suburban, green nature of the property frontage. Yet a path deep within the Home Depot property is completely inconsistent with urbanists' stated goals to urbanize Aspen Hill - they want dense apartment buildings that are built out to the street. So a redeveloped Home Depot property would end up just tearing the whole path out again. And the overall bicycle facility design and needs have yet to be determined in the vicinity, as no one yet knows what the future streetscape will be, if the county's misguided BRT bus system ever gets built there.

Yet Home Depot is going to have to give up the 25' out front, even though such a path demand is a bit over the top for an expansion of a store built 20 years ago. How much can you demand from one property owner?

"It's unfair," said Dreyfuss. It is "absurdly disproportionate" to put the burden of the county's infrastructure failures over the years on one property owner, Presley said. She is a former resident of the Aspen Hill area.

The store addition was endorsed by the county's Department of Economic Development. One nearby resident, Max Bronstein, suggested trees be trimmed to allow better visibility for drivers turning out of the property.

Home Depot says it hopes to open the new expanded store in the first part of 2015, assuming the county does not slow it down. The store will remain open during the expansion. Most of the new store will be located close to Connecticut Avenue, which should be more accommodating to the residents who live adjacent to the property than the original plan. Twenty new parking spaces will be added. The primary reason for the expansion is to improve inventory and selection, according to Home Depot representatives.

Anderson's remarks on the future of Aspen Hill may give current residents pause. He said he suspects that within 10-20 years, Home Depot, the potential Walmart site and Kmart will redevelop, presumably as multi-family, dense mixed-use buildings.

"The character of this place could be significantly altered," Anderson said. Outgoing board chair Francoise Carrier stated last year that she considered at least 2 (unidentified) Aspen Hill apartment buildings as ripe for rezoning and redevelopment.

Such plans are quietly in the works, and the result would severely reduce the quality of life in the great neighborhoods that already exist around Aspen Hill. Residents should be wary of BRT, as it is part of a Trojan horse scheme to qualify Aspen Hill for dense redevelopment. 

Should the urbanization of suburban Aspen Hill come to pass, Anderson's prediction could be the understatement of the century.

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