- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A group of Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue life members are fighting plans to sell a large swath of the squad’s property to be developed into a residential high-rise apartment building, challenging arguments by their leadership that the money is needed to replace a facility that has fallen into disrepair.

The dissidents say public safety may suffer if the sale goes ahead.

“The rescue squad’s rezoning and development plan is not compatible with the existing neighborhood. It doesn’t provide for future expansion to meet public safety requirements that will grow exponentially,” said Joe Kernan, a life member who joined the squad in 1957 and is opposed to the deal with developers.

According to Mr. Kernan and a group of 25 life members, the loss of parking and training space would be detrimental to the squad when coupled with an anticipated population growth in Bethesda that will only heighten the need for service in the area.

But squad president Ken Holden said if the deal doesn’t go through, the community could be faced with a rescue team that doesn’t have the ability to do its job. The building which currently houses the squad at 5020 Battery Lane in Bethesda was built in 1974 and lacks most of the amenities needed for a modern rescue facility.

“The requirements for a fire station have changed dramatically even in the last 10 years,” said Mr. Holden, who joined the squad as a teenager in 1972. “We’ve got an almost 50-year-old building. Some things are falling apart, electric isn’t what it should be.”

The BCC Rescue Squad, which was founded in 1937, is a nonprofit organization made up of about 150 professionally-trained volunteers and includes seven ambulance/medic units, two heavy-rescue squads, one medic-chase car, and utility and command vehicles.

The squad does not receive funding from the county government. Almost all of the $2 million operating budget comes from individual donors, foundations, businesses and occasional state and federal grants. That money isn’t enough to underwrite a state-of-the-art facility, Mr. Holden said.

“There just isn’t enough private money coming in. Basically, it’s all we can do to get enough money to get by every day,” he said.

Mr. Holden’s solution was to sell about two-thirds of the land to a developer for a 120-foot high-rise apartment building. The developer, in turn, would fund a brand-new station at a cost of up to $18 million. The squad would not reveal the name of the potential developer, and county documents about the issue don’t mention a specific name either.

The deal must be approved of the Montgomery County Council to be rezoned for a residential building of that size. Last month the rezoning was given preliminary approval by the county council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee. The committee did recommend a 90-foot limit on the planned building in response concerns of residents in the area. The committee report also said they believed the squad won’t “compromise their ability to provide necessary services for the neighborhood” in favor of the deal for the new facility.

The council next month is expected to take up the newest version of the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, which includes the rescue squad property.

County Council President Roger Berliner, who also represents Bethesda and Chevy Chase, did not return requests for comment on the upcoming zoning decision.

But Mr. Kernan and his group of life members — those who were at some point involved with the squad for at least 10 years — are that relegating the rescue squad to a property one-third the size while adding hundreds of new residents to service will be bad for the squad and for the community. And with the addition of the Purple Line in the coming years, the problem will only be exacerbated, he said.

“At a time when the county struggles to find land for facilities that support public health, safety and welfare, it should not facilitate the loss of such a significant piece of land owned and maintained by first responders when the demands on first responders will only grow in this very community,” Mr. Kernan said in a letter to Mr. Berliner.

Some Battery Park residents oppose the deal as well because the building will out of character with the neighborhood.

“Basically, the county is slowly allowing taller and taller buildings up Old Georgetown Road facing residential neighborhoods,” Steven Teitelbaum, who has lived in the community for around 30 years, said. “Those are fairly high buildings when you take into account that they’re facing residential homes.”

But Mr. Holden, the president of the rescue squad, said he’s just trying to create a station that will best serve an evolving community.

“I have to look out for the present day,” he said. “We have to be prepared to answer the call today, tomorrow, 20 years down the road.”

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