The Montgomery County Council will likely support a sewer extension for the Glenstone museum in Potomac, after tentatively
Despite opposition by the county planning board and some citizen groups, the council in a straw vote indicated Tuesday that it would approve the Glenstone Foundation’s request to install a 3,000 foot sewer extension on the property that would facilitate an expansion of the 25,000-square-foot gallery.
The foundation museum, run by billionaire Mitchell Rales and located off Glen Road in Potomac, houses a critically acclaimed collection of post-World War II art. Rales is planning the addition of a new, 125,000-square-foot building, according to a Washington Post report.
“I for one have been offended at the suggestion that this council is kowtowing to the desire of a billionaire,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1). “What this council is doing is following its policy, looking at the pros and cons, looking at the environmental benefits, … recognizing that this is a benefit to our county, what is being proposed.”
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The foundation has requested a sewer service area category change that would allow the site to be eligible to receive public sewer service. The museum is located in an area outside of the “sewer envelope,” where developments are expected to use private sewer systems, such as septic.
With tentative council approval, the property will likely be re-categorized, making it eligible to receive public sewer service.
Opponents to the sewer extension include the Audubon Society, Montgomery Countryside Alliance, Sugarloaf Citizens Association and the West Montgomery County Citizens Association. Citing the Potomac Mater Plan, the community’s designation as a slow-growth area and environmental issues with the Greenbriar Branch stream bed, the groups claim that public sewer isn’t necessary for the expansion of the museum.
Glenstone and county staff have indicated that while using septic is possible with the proposed museum expansion, it is not preferred, and would inhibit the museum’s own environmental sustainability and landscaping plans.
In a letter and in testimony to the council, Ginny Barnes, environmental chair of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, suggested that Glenstone and the county look into septic or private treatment plant options, rather than resorting to public sewer.
“Septic is being painted as one step up from an outhouse,” Barnes said. “That just isn't so. Septic, when properly sited and regularly maintained, lasts a lot longer than sewer lines.”
The environmental debate of sewer vs. septic is currently being played out at the state level, where some lawmakers say conventional septic systems leak up to 10-times more Chesapeake Bay-polluting nitrogen as sewage treatment plants. The Maryland Department of the Environment has suggested legislation requiring newly installed septic systems to remove nitrogen from wastewater, according to a Baltimore Sun report.
The legality of private treatment plants as Barnes has suggested is in question, according to Alan Soukup of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, and would still require WSSC oversight.
"I don't believe that we gain a lot by requiring the applicant to maintain and operate his own facility, on-site, that would still require oversight," he said.
Activists and the Montgomery County Planning Commission have also expressed concerns that the approval of Glenstone’s sewer extension would create a precedent, snowballing development into the slow-growth area.
A county policy has allowed the council to make exceptions that allow for non-profit institutions, like museums or religious institutions, to be eligible for sewer service in areas where it wouldn’t otherwise be permitted.
The policy was designed to afford nonprofits flexibility of location, and re-designation is mostly considered on a case-by-case basis, according to Keith Levchenko, legislative analysis for the county council.
The Montgomery County Executive branch, Glenstone and some council members maintain that sewer extension would only be used by the museum, and would not support billionaire art-collector Mitchell Rales’ private residence on the same property.
For an in-depth profile of Rales and the Glenstone Foundation’s proposed expansion, check out this July 9 Washington Post article.
Additional requirements to the sewer allowance, such as low-pressure pipes and land permeability specifications, would prohibit future development and growth, according to council members. One measure Glenstone offered would limit the facility’s expansion. It specifies that at least 85 percent of the land remain permeable thus limiting facility expansion.
“[Glenstone Foundation] has well exceeded anything that we might have put on it,” said Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “In fact this applicant my have set a wonderful precedent for higher standards. To me this is a worthy project, and one that we would clearly approve.”
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