Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Land-Use Votes Put Music Hall On Track - Washington Post

Council Action In Montgomery A Win for Leggett

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008; B01

The Montgomery County Council signed off yesterday on a pair of land-use measures designed to open one of Live Nation's Fillmore rock clubs on a vacant stretch of downtown Silver Spring by 2011.

The two votes were the last major hurdles for the controversial plan and a victory for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who invested substantial political capital in selling the community and the council on the most high-profile building project of his tenure.

Under the deal, the council and the Maryland legislature will spend $8 million in taxpayer funds to build a Fillmore at the site of a former JCPenney store on Colesville Road. Lee Development Group will donate the land, worth about $3.5 million, to the county. And Live Nation will rent the building from the county to produce rock concerts for up to 2,000 people.

The council's action was a relief to community supporters, many wearing "Finalize the Fillmore" stickers, who have been working for more than six years to bring a live music venue to Silver Spring. After the votes, Bruce Lee, president of Lee Development, hugged and congratulated council members and Leggett aides.

"There were a lot of moments when I didn't think I'd see this day," Lee said. "This is huge."

In backing the plan, council members rejected the advice of the county's chief planner, who had called the zoning changes a "blank check" for developers.

But supporters such as council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) said the music hall will be the capstone of Silver Spring's "renaissance" and generate millions in tax revenue. "We've done the right thing here. It doesn't look pretty and it hasn't been easy, but I'm glad we're moving down the road on this now," she said.

Proponents of the plan scrambled to rewrite the measures moments before the vote yesterday to ensure the necessary support.

The deal relies on the Lee group providing the land in exchange for protection and flexibility to eventually build on the surrounding site. The music hall, which would count as the Lee group's required public amenity and public-use space, would be built first, before the developers commit to an adjacent project.

Typically, the county's Planning Board negotiates with developers for open space, such as plazas, as part of the approval process. Leggett's initial proposal would have eliminated that discretion when the county executive accepted a donation of property for arts and entertainment.

But amendments approved yesterday on a 7 to 2 vote put the decision in the hands of the council, which would have to pass a resolution backing any initiative. Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who brokered the deal, called the changes a "significant rebalancing of the powers."

"This is the place where land-use decisions rest," she said of the council.

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson reiterated his opposition in a letter to council members the day before the vote.

"We do not oppose the Fillmore; we oppose the damage the proposed amendments inflict on the integrity of planning and development review," he wrote, saying the changes mean that planners cannot ensure "a well-designed project at a strategic location in Silver Spring."

The dissenters on the council, Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Marc Elrich (D-At Large), said the measures would set a bad precedent for land-use decisions and tried unsuccessfully to make last-minute changes. Elrich said the council was under pressure to write legislation for a narrow interest that would result in less public-use space, usually outdoors and free, in exchange for indoor space with an admission fee.

"We've been told, 'Give the Lees everything they want or this project goes someplace else or doesn't happen at all.' That's a problematic way to do business," he said. "This legislation goes far beyond protecting the Lees and basically gives them a deal we would not give to anyone else."

In a separate vote, the council unanimously approved a measure that would at least double the usual life span of approval for construction to 10 years, in addition to a five-year extension Leggett had initially proposed. Hanson had also warned against extending the approval period, saying it could slow construction in downtown Silver Spring by allowing the Lees to retain development rights but not use them for years.

The project, initiated by Leggett predecessor Douglas M. Duncan (D), had threatened to derail several times. Negotiations to open a Birchmere Music Hall collapsed early in Leggett's term, and a counteroffer from the owner of the District's 9:30 Club had appealed to some council members who did not want to use taxpayer money for the project.

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