As Montgomery County planners prepare for a potential lengthy rezoning process of an Aspen Hill site that could one day welcome Walmart, some area residents have formed a group to oppose the fast-track rezoning.
Called Aspen Hill Homeowners, the group believes a Walmart or other big-box store at that site will cause too much of an increase in neighborhood traffic, said Judy Fink, who lives a half-block from the site at the northwest corner of Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue. Her street is already a cut-through route for many motorists avoiding backups on Aspen Hill Road, she said.
“The negative environmental impact would be significant,” Fink said. “A big box is not acceptable to me and to many of us.”
But other residents support the site’s faster rezoning process from office to retail, saying it will revitalize the neighborhood and improve the site, which has had a vacant 265,000-square-foot building since defense and aerospace contractor BAE Systems moved out in 2010.
The Aspen Hill Civic Association, which formed around 1980, supports rezoning the BAE site “as the only viable path to change this obsolete vacant building site into a vital and productive commercial property benefitting ours and surrounding communities,” said Alexandra Minckler, the association’s president.
“We are not advocating any specific tenant use, and as such are not opposed to Walmart,” Minckler said.
At community meetings in December and April, the majority of people expressed support for the rezoning to retail, she added. The county also received letters of support from other groups, including the Montgomery County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and owners of local businesses, such as Dunkin’ Donuts.
Montgomery County planning staff is holding its third community meeting on the rezoning process at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Aspen Hill Library.
Bruce H. Lee, president of Silver Spring-based Lee Development Group, the developer of the property, said the local office market is still weak, with little signs of improving soon. A lot of other developers seek to rezone Montgomery County property from office to retail or residential, he said.
His company has a signed letter of intent from Walmart to open a store at the former BAE site, but that is nonbinding, Lee said.
“There is no guarantee that will be the tenant,” he said. “It’s such a long process, and plans could change. It could be several years before we would even be able to break ground. Retailers don’t usually look for a particular space unless they know the zoning is in place.”
Lee Development started looking for another office user several years before BAE moved out and has found no takers, Lee said.
“Aspen Hill is more of a retail destination,” he said. “It’s not near a Metro station. In fact, it’s closer to the ICC than a Metro station.”
The Lee family has owned property in Aspen Hill since it was farmland and built some of the community’s first retail shops in the 1950s. In 1968, the family also opened the former BAE building, which was first occupied by the Vitro Corp. Vitro started in the 1950s as a manufacturing company of mostly slide transparencies for overhead projectors and eventually became part of BAE.
Vitro once had two other buildings in a campus there, but those two were torn down in the 1990s to make way for Home Depot. At that time, Lee Development still had a 20-year lease with BAE, Lee said.
“We had no idea the market for office would get this bad,” he said.
In the past four years, Lee said, he has met with many people and business groups about the project, including those from Aspen Hill and Leisure World; many residents wanted more retail choices, including grocery store competition for the Giant store. He said any new development would be high quality, like the nearby Northgate Plaza Shopping Center, where Lee Development spent millions of dollars in upgrades and added a Kohl’s Department Store in 2012.
“That shopping center is really doing well,” he said.
The County Council voted 5-4 about a year ago to expedite the zoning review of the former BAE site in a minor master plan amendment process, rejecting a council committee’s recommendation that the review expand to other Aspen Hill commercial and retail areas.
Lee’s company pays $500,000 to $700,000 annually in property taxes, utilities, insurance, maintenance and other costs for the former BAE site. The empty building must be heated in the winter so pipes don’t freeze, Lee said. His company lets law enforcement agencies use it free for training.
The area has had numerous traffic accidents, some fatal, and street signs are often hit, nearby resident Sharon Dean said. In April, a man, a woman and an 8-month-old child were taken to hospitals with serious injuries after a driver crashed into their car at Aspen Hill Road and Parkland Drive, then fled.
“There are schools and bus stops near” the former BAE site, Dean said. “Our main focus is community safety.”
Joan Beerweiler, another nearby resident, said the group is getting a petition signed by area residents. BAE and Vitro supplied good-paying jobs, and employees there did not add to traffic outside working hours on weekdays, she said.
“If it’s a Super Walmart, that would add even more traffic than a regular Walmart. It would probably be open until midnight seven days a week,” she said.
Kohl’s is a nice store that the area did not have before and has not overly burdened neighborhood streets, Dean said. A Walmart would provide more of a strain on area streets, besides “duplicating what we have already,” she said.
Lee said changing the zoning to retail would reduce the building’s size by more than half, to about 120,000 square feet. Traffic would be spread out over more hours and not focused on peak rush-hour times, he said.
Preliminary traffic studies have even shown traffic flow improving under retail zoning from office, Lee said.
At next week’s community meeting, the county plans to present preliminary draft zoning recommendations, as well as a traffic analysis.
Aspen Hill Homeowners plans to meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Aspen Hill Library to prepare for the planning department meeting.
The Planning Board hopes to have a public hearing in July and draft a plan by October. The County Council could hold a hearing next January and vote on the rezoning by March, according to the latest schedule.