Two private organizations specializing in historical designation have filed a lawsuit against county agencies claiming the proper historical designation process for a former Silver Spring bank building was not followed.
The suit was filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court last week by Montgomery Preservation Inc. and the Silver Spring Historical Society against the Montgomery County Planning Board and County Council, regarding the historical designation of the Perpetual Bank Building at 8700 Georgia Ave., which was built in 1958.
After the Planning Board voted in March not to designate the Perpetual Bank Building for preservation – against recommendations from the county's Historic Preservation Committee –the County Council should have held a public hearing for the final decision on the designation, said Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation.
But on Oct. 28, the council voted 6-3 not to hold a public hearing, favoring the Planning Board's decision. According to the suit, it is common practice to hold a public hearing on historical designations and without a public hearing, the designation process is not complete.
The suit is asking for a court-ruled public hearing with the County Council on the historical preservation of Perpetual Bank. It also asks that an amendment to the Master Plan for Historic Preservation that contains the Historic Preservation Commission's recommendation be properly considered.
"We are asking the courts to tell the council to follow the process that's been here for 28 years," Goldstein said, referring to historical designation law. "That's hardly a radical demand."
Michael Faden, attorney for the County Council, said the suit was "fairly unusual" and a "political suit" based on varying interpretations of historical designation law. He said the council has no obligation to hold a public hearing on historical designations if it has no intention of overruling the Planning Board's decision.
"I think this lawsuit is ultimately going to fail because the council has no obligation to act," said Faden, who on Monday had not yet received a copy of the suit but understood the allegations.
The suit acknowledges the council's right not to hold a public hearing if it does not expect to alter the Planning Board's decision. But the suit also claims the council never indicated whether it agreed with the Planning Board and longstanding precedent of holding public hearings should not be ignored.
A project plan for renovations to the Perpetual Bank Building was filed in the fall of 2006 to the county Planning Department with the intent to demolish the building and replace it with a building including eight floors of condominiums, two floors of office space and first-floor retail.
Albert Foer, the property's owner, said he has not seen the suit but the attempt to gain historical preservation for Perpetual Bank has already significantly delayed development plans.
"We have not received any approvals from the planning commission because it's been held up for more than a year by the historical process," Foer said. He said the new development would be four times as large as what is currently at the site and is "exactly the kind of mixed-use development that the county wants."
Originally, the Planning Board voted 3-0 not to designate Perpetual Bank as historical because the building was "mediocre" and has "been replicated in various places in the region."
This came after the Historical Preservation Committee ruled in favor of designating the building because it was among the first banks in the region to adopt a more modern architectural style and was one of the largest savings and loan banks in the country, said Clare Kelly, research and designation coordinator for HPC.
"It was very representative of what became the norm of branch banks in the region," Kelly said. She said it is not uncommon for the Planning Board to rule differently from the HPC.
After the Planning Board's decision was made, a draft report was sent to the council that included the Planning Board's ruling and the HPC's ruling in favor of the building. In the Oct. 28 council session, only councilmembers Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park, Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring and Donald Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton voted to hold a hearing.
Goldstein said the only other instance where the council did not hold a public hearing on historical designation was when Clarksburg's Comsat building's went through its preservation process. That building was also nominated for historical designation in the face of demolition and was also backed by the HPC. It too received a negative ruling from the Planning Board and no public hearing from the County Council.
Suits were filed by Montgomery Preservation following that decision and in response the Planning Board held a worksession on whether to send the matter to County Council. It was decided the County Council would review the designation. But before a hearing could be scheduled, the developer worked with the community to redesign the site while still maintaining the building.