Conservation Montgomery 

June 23, 2012

Community Updates 

In This Issue
A must-read: Update on M83 by Elizabeth Zinar (2nd story)
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Trees vs. Sidewalks Conundrum Finds Residents at Odds

Proposal for a sidewalk in Bethesda could sacrifice 53 trees  


By Agnes Blum


The "Green Mile" is in danger of losing some of that green if a state plan to cut down dozens of trees to make room for a sidewalk succeeds.

trees on green mile in Bethesda
Pedaling down the 'Green Mile' along Wisconsin Avenue 


Known for its lush canopy of trees, the stretch of Maryland state highway 355, or Wisconsin Avenue, runs north from Friendship Heights through Chevy Chase to downtown Bethesda. But now more than 50 trees along the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, between Grafton Street and Bradley Boulevard, are slated to be cut down by the state to make room for a sidewalk or a hike-and-bike trail. The new path would run alongside the Chevy Chase Country Club. There is already a sidewalk on the other side of Wisconsin Avenue. 


"It would be horrendous and totally unnecessary to lose 53 trees. What is the county thinking!" said, Mary Rowse, the moderator of the Chevy Chase Community listerv. The Chevy Chase, DC resident calls herself a firm believer in sidewalks. "It's not a mutually exclusive thing. I'd like to see the Chevy Chase Country Club save as many trees as possible. I want the Chevy Chase Club to step forward."

It's a sentiment echoed by others. The Chevy Chase Country Club did not respond to calls for a comment.
The project has been in the works for a few years, and appears on the Montgomery County master plan, said David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA). Construction is slated to start in the spring of 2013, Buck said. 
Residents from nearby neighborhoods have requested the sidewalk for years, according to Kate Mazzara, assistant district engineer for the the SHA, who is working on the project and has held several public meetings. The project is fueled by concerns for the safety of pedestrians who have to walk on a bumpy stretch of ground alongside a busy street in order to reach one of the four bus stops that are there.
So while a pathway is all but assured, according to Mazzara, it is still in the design stage, which means it is unclear what shape it will take and how many, if any, of the 53 trees in question can be saved.
Some trees that have been deemed too sick and weak to withstand any nearby construction will certainly be taken down no matter what, Mazzara said. Whether it is a hike-and-bike trail or a sidewalk, the area will have to be graded and construction done near tree roots, which can weaken trees, making them more likely to fall. So some tree removal will not be due to space concerns, but safety, according to Mazzara.
"The last thing we want is one of those trees to fall into the roadway." Mazzara said. Mazzara said the state is looking for "opportunities to save trees." The state will replant trees to compensate for the ones removed, but they won't be planted alongside Wisconsin Avenue, or even necessarily in Montgomery County.
The fate of the trees partly depends on whether the path will be a narrow one designed as a sidewalk, or a wider one built for bicycles as well as pedestrians. A sidewalk needs to be only 5 feet wide to comply with the Americans with Disability Act, which this new construction must do. Since the state requires a 6-foot curb for trees, a sidewalk-style path might not preclude some trees. But a hike-and-bike trail is a different story. At 8 feet wide, there would be no room for trees, old ones or new ones, since the area in question is only about 12 feet wide.
Both versions of the path have their staunch supporters, as well as those who want the trees to remain untouched, although that would mean no path at all.
The bicycling community has been very vocal, Mazzara said. In a letter to supporters of a hike-and-bike trail, Michael Replogle, the Transportation Committee Co-Chair of the Chevy Chase West Neighborhood Association and a nationally recognized expert on sustainable transportation, wrote about the dangerous biking conditions on Wisconsin Avenue. As for the sidewalk on the other side of the street, Replogle wrote that it is "quite substandard, has an uneven surface, and gets very crowded with pedestrian and bicycle traffic many days."
Michael Replogle of the Chevy Chase West Neighborhood Association  
Replogle urged those in favor of a trail to "let officials know this facility needs to be wide and well designed, with a reasonable buffer from Wisconsin Avenue."
But unfortunately what is good for bicyclists in this case is not good for the trees.
Those opposed to cutting down the trees -- elms, black locusts, cherries and maples among others -- say it would be an environmental and aesthetic disaster.
Sarah Morse
Sarah Morse of the Little Falls Watershed Alliance 
A new hike-and-bike trail would be a path to nowhere, said Sarah Morse, who serves on the board of the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, a non-profit conservation group that opposes the construction. "There's no shared-use path coming in to it, or out of it," she said. Morse said she was upset that so little concern had been paid to the environmental price that would be paid. 
"What's really appalling at a time when the state is trying to put in more trees, the county is putting in more trees," Morse said. "That they are very cavalier about taking out 53 trees."
Those trees are more than just pretty, she pointed out, they play an important part in storm water management, preventing hundreds of gallons of polluted run-off from entering the creek every time it rains. Trees also reduce the urban heat island effect, the shade cools the road surfaces and saves energy use in our homes. Trees also provide oxygen and clean pollutants out of the air, and help filter polluted water with their root systems so that the ground water is clean.
Once the design is complete, the state will have to do an environmental impact study and a storm water runoff study, Mazzara said. But for some locals, no study is needed to tell them it's not a good idea to cut down dozens of trees. In an area known for rapid development and congested byways, some feel the Green Mile cannot sacrifice its canopy of trees. Local listservs are filled with comments like the ones below:
"The 'green mile' is a lovely break in our increasingly developed landscape and should be preserved," Bridget Cowie wrote.
"I personally think that lovely mile is essential to the character and beauty of our neighborhood," Liza Greenberg wrote.
Celesta Jurkovich, president of the Chevy Chase Neighborhood Association, said residents have been advocating for a sidewalk for a long time.
"The only access in and out of our community is Wisconsin Avenue," Jurkovich said. " There are four bus stops there and we've been working a long time to improve the safety because so many residents use that bus stop."   
But she hopes the sidewalk does not pit one neighbor against another, and that some compromise can be found.
Claudia Phelps hopes that the state will find that compromise as well. 
"Life doesn't have to be a choice between trees vs. safety," she wrote on a Chevy Chase listserv. "In fact, that is a false choice; both are possible with some flexibility."         


Public Comment Period for Controversial M83 in UpCounty Closes on Aug. 1st

By Elizabeth Zinar
Creek for M83 story
M83 would jeopardize the water quality and biodiversity of watersheds like the Dayspring Creek valley.   

Montgomery County is nearing the close of a more than 50-year process of determining whether to pursue a controversial transportation plan that would drastically alter the landscape and communities Upcounty. The Midcounty Highway has been a part of the county's master plan from the time it was built in the 1960s. Ever since, county transportation planners have debated whether to extend the highway into the north, from Gaithersburg up to Clarksburg. As originally proposed, the four to six-lane highway extension, or M83, would begin at Montgomery Village Avenue, cut through Germantown, and conclude at Ridge Road.


The county's stated rationale for building the extension relates primarily to two major issues. One is to ease the notorious traffic congestion in regions further Downcounty, particularly on heavily used and accident-prone roads like 355 and 270. The other is the goal of providing newly developed areas in Clarksburg with improved access to the rest of the county. However, this rationale has been challenged in recent years by critics who say building M83 in the present day would be a shortsighted response to the broader question of effective community planning. Since the time that it was first developed in the 1950s, critics say, the master plan for M83 has become both logistically infeasible as well as destructive for established communities through which it would traverse.


Sharon Dooley of Olney is among the most vocal opponents of M83. A well-known community activist in the county, Dooley started the civic group Upcounty Action. She works with other county residents to seek sustainable growth and community design in the upper portion of the county, including Clarksburg. Dooley says M83 is no longer a reasonable solution to connect residents in Clarksburg to the more built out metropolitan areas.  


"The [transportation master] plan was developed almost 60 years ago, and technology and transportation has become much more developed since then," says Dooley. "Working with what we have today is much more important than taking away green space and watershed."  

Sharon Dooley 


In response to dissent from residents like Dooley, the county embarked on formal study of the Midcounty Corridor Extension and its potential impacts on surrounding communities. Currently, there are six options under consideration in the study. These range from not building anything at all, to widening and repairing existing roads, to going through with the original master plan. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) has been holding periodic workshops on the study to solicit input from the public, with the most recent workshop held earlier this month. The public comment period for recommendations presented in the workshop will remain open until August 1st.


Margaret Schoap and Jim Hall of the Dayspring Silent Retreat Center in Germantown echo Dooley's sentiments. The Dayspring Center is a major landmark and conservation area in Germantown which has become established as a haven for people, as well as wildlife. It is also located squarely in the path of M83. In addition to disturbing the solitude that attracts people from around the world, the proposed road would also irreversibly destroy the natural habitat within and around the 210-acre property area. These areas, which include the Dayspring Creek stream valley and the nearby Seneca Creek valley, are high-biodiversity areas, Schoap and Hall said in an interview. Hall also explained that the M83 master plan would slice through this area and destroy not only the habitat but also the setting of the Center, which was opened in 1953.


"We are not simply saying that we don't want this highway in our backyard. We don't believe this should be in anyone's backyard," Schoap said. In additional to her association with Dayspring, Schoap also leads the Transit Alternatives to Midcounty Highway Extended Coalition (TAME), a group of existing civic and environmental organizations who have coalesced to advocate for more diverse local transit options than a highway-based system.


Comparatively speaking, Dooley, Schoap and Hall say, highway travel is no longer the most reliable or accessible mode of transportation that it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Montgomery County Master Transportation plan was first designed. They say the huge portion of the county's budget would have to be set aside to plan for and potentially build M83 is therefore irrational, and that the funds could be put toward more progressive and effective alternatives.


"We need to switch from a highway system to a more robust transportation system," Hall asserted. "The focus of federal and state funding should be on transit. We don't need this destructive road."


To be sure, funding is a major concern among Montgomery County Council Members. At Large Councilmembers Marc Elrich and George Leventhal maintain that the M83 master plan is not only damaging to the environment but expensive and infeasible in light of its dated design. A spokesman from Councilmember Marc Elrich's office noted that one-third of the proposed Rapid Transit system could be built with the projected cost of the road.


"In the past, I have had an open mind on the desirability of M-83, but now it is clear that we cannot afford it," Councilmember Leventhal wrote in a statement. "We must build the Corridor Cities Transitway. We must build a Watkins Mill Interchange on I-270. We should widen I-270 with reversible lanes. We should provide bus rapid transit capability on 355. All of the projects are higher priorities than M-83 and doing all of them will take decades."

The MCDOT began environmental and engineering studies surrounding the plan in 2003. It subsequently broadened the process into the Midcounty Corridor Study, through which it has been planning and assessing potential alternatives to the M83 master plan. The county has scheduled a public hearing on the alternatives for Spring 2013 and hopes to conclude the 60-year-long process with a selection next summer.

Click here to submit a comment to MCDOT before Aug. 1. 

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