From Nursery to Nursing in Potomac

Planning Board recommends approval of 152,655 square-foot, three story retirement community on River Road.

Up Next: Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings on Sept. 21.

Whenever houseguests leave his home on River Road, Hass Bashir gives them a serious warning. “We actually have to provide a disclaimer to everybody, all of our guests when they are leaving our house. ‘Hey, be very careful if you are making a left turn, be very quick. If you are making a right turn, also be very quick. Make sure you look for traffic,’” he said.

Bashir told the Montgomery County Planning Board his concerns about Spectrum Retirement Communities’ proposal to open a retirement home and memory care wing across River Road from his house, where the Potomac Petals and Plants garden nursery (formerly Behnke’s) now operates. Because of a dip on River Road in both directions, there aren’t clear lines-of-sight of people turning into his driveway or the plant nursery until the last seconds.

“I don’t think this is the right spot to build,” he said.

“I see accidents right across from us. If you are standing on my front door on a three acre property I can see the nursery with a clear view. That's my horizon. Almost on a weekly basis, or every two weeks, there are minor issues where people are braking really hard to avoid an accident,” Bashir said.

POTOMAC IS PERFECT, an ideal setting for a retirement community, said Mike Longfellow, Senior Vice President of Construction and Development with Spectrum Retirement Communities, a company based in Denver, Colo.

“We look for sites that allow seniors to age in place in the community that they have lived for much or all of their life,” he said.

“This site provides the setting and the location we desire for our seniors,” said Longfellow.

“We have been looking on the east coast and in this area for several years and Potomac continuously rose to the top of our list,” he said.

Steven Robins, an attorney with Lerch, Early and Brewer who represents Spectrum, said the site is “literally a straight shot to the Potomac commercial center of Potomac, truly an ideal location. The property is perfectly suited for this use.”

The Montgomery County Planning Board last month recommended approval of Spectrum’s request for a conditional use to operate a 100-unit, 130-bed Residential Care Facility including an 18-unit memory care section, on a 5.04-acre property located at 9545 River Road. The retirement community building would be 152,655 square feet and three stories, according to planning documents.

The Planning Board also recommended approval of the preliminary forest conservation plan.

Spectrum still has the burden of proof when it takes its application before the Office of the Zoning and Administrative Hearings on Sept. 21, 2020, said David Brown, land use attorney representing 10 nearby neighbors by the site as well as the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.

“The devil is in the details,” said Brown, who filed his clients’ interest and intention to participate in opposition to the conditional use application.

NEIGHBORS ARGUED that compatibility must be addressed, and disagreed with Planning Staff who recommended approval.

“The County Board is turning, I feel, Potomac into a Montgomery County retirement community capital of Maryland. Every year there is a new retirement facility coming, popping up,” said Bashir.

“Our judgement on this is still a work in progress. It appears to check all the boxes on zoning development standards, I would give it a gold star for a permitted use, but this is a conditional use where compatibility with the existing neighborhood is a paramount consideration,” said Brown.

“First, this project could be among the very top of conditional uses in size and bulk in such a low density single family detached residential use zone as RE-2,” said Brown, of Knopf and Brown.

“Put this another way, this project will consume much more light and air than the neighboring homes do,” he said.

The structure from River Road will look like a “largely unrelieved three-story structure” that is 400x200 feet long. “A lot more can be done to capture a residential appearance in harmony with the neighborhood from River Road,” he said.

Traffic safety must be addressed, including the lack of clear view that vehicles travelling 40 miles per hour (or faster) would have of vehicles turning into the facility.

Brown said vehicular traffic promises to be greater than what currently exists because “the nursery has long been underperforming its type and is shut down a large portion of the year. Project evaluation here requires a more critical eye on neighborhood impact than I’ve seen in the staff report.”

THE 2002 POTOMAC MASTER PLAN, the blueprint for land use decisions in Potomac, encourages options for senior housing as well as affordable housing.

“The project will help meet demands for addressing senior housing in Potomac and in Montgomery County and there is going to be a significant demand in the coming years,” said Matthew Gordon, who represents the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, which supports the project.

The project “transforms an ugly parking lot into a park-like greenery,” said Joshua Sloan, Vice President and Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture with VICA Maryland.

Sloan said the site is currently “falling into a state of disrepair” and “79 percent of the property is of impervious surface.”

“The residential care facility will result in a significant improvement to the existing condition of the property, including: substantially reducing the amount of impervious surface from 79 percent existing to 38 percent proposed, improving stormwater management treatment and runoff providing stormwater management where literally none exists today, and providing a safer more controlled vehicular access to the site and significantly enhancing the natural buffer that surrounds the property by putting a large portion of the site in a category one conservation easement,” said Robins.

The project preserves 1.2 acres for forest conservation. “It’s very rare I get to work on this type of project,” said Sloan.

Because of the 79 percent impervious surface on the site right now, “all of the stormwater runs from River Road through the site, untreated, unprotected and not slowed down at all, bringing sedimentation and water into” the Ken Branch tributary that runs into the Cabin John Creek,” said Sloan.

SPECTRUM AGREED that the plant nursery’s current driveway creates unsafe traffic conditions along River Road.

“Three hundred thirty seven feet of unfettered access in and out of this site does create quite a dangerous situation,” said Sloan.

“What we are proposing is a single entrance in and a single entrance out,” which will improve traffic conditions, he said. Sloan added that the State Highway Administration will review their intentions at future preliminary hearings.

“We are fully supportive of ideas to reduce the speed limit which decreases to the northwest of our site to 30 miles per hour to decrease speeds in this area,” said Sloan.

Spectrum said improvements aesthetically, environmentally, and architecturally will help its plan to integrate itself into the neighborhood.

“We want to be an excellent neighbor and integrate this site into the residential character of the neighborhood,” said Longfellow.

More Information

See the planning report on Spectrum’s proposed project: https://montgomeryplanningboard.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/item11A_CU-20-05-Spectrum-Final-ET.pdf

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