Comsat's fate in hands of council

Following a six-month delay, the Planning Board votes to forward the question of historic designation

Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006

by Susan Singer-Bart
Staff Writer

Bowing to precedent, the county Planning Board voted Thursday to give the County Council a chance to decide the fate of the Comsat building in Clarksburg.

In July the board voted 4-1 against adding the building to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation, despite a strong recommendation from the county Historic Preservation Commission to do so.

Master plan issues are decided at the County Council, with recommendation from the Planning Board and county executive. In this case, however, the board voted against amending the county’s Historic Preservation Plan to include the Comsat building and did not send the matter to the council.

"When an amendment has been generated, the board’s precedent has been to send it to the County Council for decision," Gwen Wright, historic preservation supervision, told the board at Thursday’s hearing. "My recommendation is to follow that policy."

The board has always sent zoning amendments to the council, whether or not it recommends enacting the amendment, Wright said.

There was no discussion Thursday of why the issue of forwarding the matter to the council has come up six months after the vote, but some have speculated that pending lawsuits could be a factor.

Supporters and opponents of the amendment get a chance to argue the issues all over again if the council decides to hold a hearing.

The County Council may choose not to act on the Comsat question, Wright said. The council usually holds public hearings on any zoning amendment the planning board sends, but it is not required to do so.

In her 20 years as a council legislative analyst, the council has always taken up every zoning issue sent from the board, but it does not have to, Jean Arthur said.

In some cases the council has not agreed with the board’s recommendation and has supported amendments the board opposed, Commissioner John M. Robinson said Thursday.

Deciding against historic designation for the Comsat building was a ‘‘tough decision,” but the economic impact of the designation outweighed other considerations in his mind, he said.

"There’s a real tension here between historic preservation and land use," Robinson said.

The building’s owner Berwyn, Pa.-based LCOR, has fought against historic designation saying the 1960s-era building is too new and the designation would be an economic hardship. It wants to demolish the building and build a mix of townhouses, apartments, retail buildings and offices on the 230-acre campus.

"I do have an obligation if there is a clear conflict between the Historic Preservation Commission and the master plan — that’s a decision to be made by [the] council," Robinson said.

The issue was not whether Comsat deserved historic designation, that had already been decided, he said. This decision was about the process, he said.

Three other commissioners agreed.

"I view this as a close case and a legitimate case," said Commissioner Wendy C. Perdue. "I don’t know if it’s ultimately our decision or council’s."

Only Chairman Derick P. Berlage, who shook his head throughout Wright’s presentation, voted against sending the issue to the council.

"My belief is historic designation should be done as part of a master plan — at the same time you’re making larger decisions on zoning, etc.," he said.

When the Clarksburg Master Plan was approved in 1994, no one thought the building might be in danger.

The building, at the northern end of Montgomery County, faces Interstate 270. It was designed by master architect Cesar Pelli and completed in 1969.

According to the Historic Preservation Commission, it meets six of nine criteria for designation — it has character; exemplifies a cultural, economic, social and political heritage of the county; is distinctive in characteristic type; represents the work of a master; possesses high artistic value and presents a familiar visual feature of the county.

Those arguing for preservation hope to convince the council that the building can be modified to fit the developer’s plans for the property.

Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation Inc., is arranging for Pelli to lead a design charrette in early June to develop ideas for modifying and reusing the building. Pelli has offered to redesign the building free of charge.

"The weakness of the case was not showing a convincing case for reuse [in July]," Commissioner Allison Bryant said after the hearing.

The Planning Board will send its recommendation to the county executive. He has 60 days to make a recommendation and send the matter to the council. After 61 days the council will take up the matter even if the county executive does not make a recommendation, Arthur said.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan submitted a letter to the board last year arguing against historic designation for the building.

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