Friday, July 18, 2008

Planners Oppose Two Key Measures For Live-Music Hall - Washington Post

Planners Oppose Two Key Measures For Live-Music Hall

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008; B04

Montgomery County planners yesterday rejected a pair of land-use measures designed to bring one of Live Nation's Fillmore music halls to Silver Spring, dealing a setback to one of County Executive Isiah Leggett's signature projects.

Planning Board members expressed support for opening the Fillmore's doors on Colesville Road, but they took issue with Leggett's approach, which they said would usurp their discretion and provide one developer with privileged status and significant concessions.

"Everyone on this board would like to see this happen," chairman Royce Hanson said of the Fillmore project. But, he added, "if anyone other than the county executive came in with this proposal, we wouldn't spend more than five minutes on it."

The board's decision was a blow to the $13.5 million deal, intended to invigorate a vacant block at the site of a former J.C. Penney building. Although the board's action is only a recommendation to the County Council, its guidance typically carries great weight with council members because planners are their leading land-use advisers.

"This is a disaster," said Bruce H. Lee, president of Lee Development Group, who has agreed to donate the land for the project. "We thought we had this worked out with the county executive. It's a terrible signal."

Leggett (D) resurrected the live-music project when negotiations with the Alexandria-based Birchmere Music Hall collapsed after five years of talks with former executive Douglas M. Duncan. The deal relies on the Lee group providing the land in exchange for protection and flexibility to eventually build on the surrounding site.

The path to building a Fillmore in Silver Spring is unprecedented because the music hall, which would count as the Lee group's public amenity and public-use space, would be built first, before the developers commit to an adjacent project. The land-use measures the planning board considered yesterday are vital to the success of the project.

Leggett's spokesman, Patrick Lacefield, said he does not think that the board's action will jeopardize the music hall.

"This is something the executive wants to do and something the council wants to do. We're going to find a way to do it," he said.

In general, the Planning Board has wide discretion to negotiate with developers for plazas or green space at the end of a project in exchange for the right to develop at a higher density in the county's business districts. Leggett's proposal eliminates that discretion when the county executive accepts a donation of property for arts and entertainment.

Leggett's proposal also seeks to at least double the usual life span of approval for construction to 10 years and give the developer the option to seek an additional five years. For a typical development, there is a five-year expiration date on approval once planners have determined how a project would affect roads, schools and other public services.

Planning Board members suggested simplifying Leggett's proposal, allowing a five-year approval with a five-year extension. That was not acceptable to Lee, who said it would be too great a risk in light of the economy.

Backers of the plan, some wearing "Finalize the Fillmore" stickers to the hearing, said the project requires a creative approach because the Lee group is donating the land upfront.

"If you're going to move forward to the future, you can't get hung up on the rules of the past," said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who did not attend the hearing.

The debate underscores a power struggle between the executive branch and the planning department for control of land-use decisions, because the measures would put more control into the hands of the executive.

In recent weeks, the Lee group has been spreading the word that the Fillmore is in trouble, and that message has prompted dozens of e-mails and letters of support to the council in advance of a July 29 public hearing.

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