Controversial bus lot roils residents in Montgomery Co.

WASHINGTON — Opponents of a plan to put a school bus parking lot in their neighborhood — the Lincoln Park area of Rockville, Maryland — knew that Montgomery County was considering a parcel in their community.

But when they found that the county’s Department of General Services had already signed a $12 million contract for the 1000 Westmore Ave. site, they were furious. Montgomery County Planning Board members were also surprised at the news — which they had only learned about during a planning board hearing Thursday night.

“It’s really hard not to be extremely troubled by what the residents have brought forth,” said Montgomery County Planning Board member Amy Presley.

During the hearing, Greg Ossont, deputy director of the the county’s Department of General Services, took pains to say that the Rockville parcel was not being considered as a future bus depot—with repair and maintenance shops—for Montgomery County Public Schools.

“We’re only really evaluating the site currently for satellite parking,” he said, adding that the county was “seeking approval simply for the acquisition” of the site.

But what he didn’t say was that the county had already committed to the purchase of the site.

It was Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton who brought it up—even holding up a copy of the contract. She told the planning board members that the issue before them was largely a done deal, and she said that raised serious concerns.

“How is it that the county executed and signed an agreement to purchase this property prior to the planning board’s mandatory referral process?” Newton asked, noting the $12 million contract didn’t contain a contingency clause.

Placing this bus depot is part of the county’s “smart growth,” plan. The site, which is currently used by Montgomery County Public Schools, has been sold by the county and will be developed. David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services, said once a plan is developed for the site, “that would go back to the planning board.”

The parcel abuts one of the county’s oldest historic African-American neighborhoods.

“Lincoln Park has been the dumping ground for the school board for decades,” resident Frances Hawkins said.

Other members of the community chimed in, saying the area’s history with the Montgomery County Public Schools and, by extension the county, was one rife with mistrust and that this discovery only heightened that sense.

As the members of the planning board weighed in on the merits of the purchase, they commented on the fact that Ossont said nothing about the contract to buy the Westmore Avenue site in his presentation.

“It’s just so disrespectful in so many ways,” board member Natali Fani-Gonzalez told Ossont.

“You came here, you signed a contract and you did not mention anything about it—it’s hard for me to trust after all this,” she said.

Board member Marye Wells-Harley said the history of the community—an African American enclave that’s often found itself battling zoning issues—concerned her.

“I’m very, very disappointed in how this has been handled,” she told Ossont. “You have disrespected one of the oldest African American communities in Montgomery County.”

Board member Norman Dreyfuss was measured, but clear in his feelings about the county’s application for the site.  Explaining that the planning board staff recommended rejecting the county’s plan for the Westmore site, he said:  “I’m going to support our staff’s recommendation very vehemently.”

Dreyfuss said that the property could be developed for residential use, which could create a positive buffer for the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

“You could take this and turn it into an opportunity,” Dreyfuss said.

When it came time to vote, the board sided with the staff recommendation, rejecting the county’s request for approval, but board chairman Casey Anderson pointed out that the vote was advisory in nature. He also said he wouldn’t pile on to the comments made by his colleagues on the board.

In the end, he said, the county has a problem to solve: where to put up to 425 school buses.

At the close of Thursday night’s meeting, Anderson said the vote might feel good to the opponents of placing part of the school bus fleet in their neighborhood. “But that doesn’t get us any closer to where to park these buses,” he said.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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