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by Judith Hruz
The Ashton Village Center Sector Plan, which envisions approximately 127 acres around the intersection of Olney-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108) and New Hampshire Avenue (Route 650) as a rural village with a mix of land uses, now guides development in the community.
The Montgomery County Council on June 15 unanimously approved the sector plan.
The county Planning Board first presented its December draft of the Ashton Village Center Sector Plan to the council in January.
“I’m proud that the council came together to approve a plan that will help shape the future of the Ashton Village and Sandy Spring areas,” council President Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 5) said. “The recommendations will create a vibrant village center, improve connectivity and create an environment that fosters a sense of community.”
The Ashton Village Sector Plan evaluates land use, zoning, transportation, environment, design and other relevant issues in Ashton.
Since 2000, the residential population of the Sandy Spring and Ashton area has increased by almost 1,700, or 38 percent, the county reports. Though the number of housing units increased by 27 percent over the same period, the housing growth has slowed in recent years, with fewer than 35 new homes built since 2014.
The plan provides zoning and design recommendations intended to allow the density and uses expected for a rural village, while ensuring that any new development complements Ashton’s existing commercial center and rural character.
Since the two state highways form a crossroads at the core of the Ashton Village Center, the plan also provides transportation recommendations related to vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle mobility in the area.
The plan boundary includes all of the area within the Sandy Spring and Ashton Rural Village Overlay zone that is east of the area covered by the 2015 Sandy Spring Rural Village Plan.
“The council’s final plan reflects a lot of finely grained and nuanced concerns that came forward during the process, and we got to a great outcome that will support progress for the area. I appreciate the participation of everyone involved,” Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large), chair of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee, said.
Some residents have been eager to see the area develop in a responsible manner, while others have voiced concern about any development that would change the rural character.
As recently as the Sandy Spring Civic Association’s June 14 meeting – the night before the council approved the sector plan – residents told Patrick Butler and Molly Jackson of the county Planning Department, who encouraged residents to stay connected to all development, that they have frequently participated.
Yet they expressed concern that officials had not listened to them.
“Why isn’t my voice being heard?” said resident Audrey Guy-McFarland.
Sitting as the District Council, the County Council on May 4 unanimously approved the sector plan, sending it officially to the full council for the June 15 vote.
In discussing the plan, the council members in May stressed the desire to maintain the character of the community, and any development anywhere in the village center area would be required to adhere to such guidelines.
After that earlier meeting, Dr. Daryl Thorne, president of the Sandy Spring Civic Association, applauded council Vice President Gabe Albornoz (D-At large) and Riemer, whom she said advocated on behalf of the community “to ensure that our voices are still present when we cannot physically be in these crucial meetings. I am hopeful that once development begins, the approved plan guidelines will be adhered to.”
During the May 4 worksession, Riemer said there has been “very focused community participation.”
He said he believes the plan put forth by county planners met the “very specific concerns” presented by community advocates and is “responsive and forward thinking.”
Albornoz said the plan exemplified the “great work of the Planning Board staff.”
He said he had the opportunity to meet with the community and the developer to discuss the plan and the proposed development on the southeast corner.
He acknowledged the “authentic and deliberate effort by the developer to adhere to what makes that community so special.”
Local development company Nichols Contracting Inc. wants to build a mixed-use community on the southeast corner of the crossroads.
Fred Nichols, president and founder of the company, has called the plan a “success for the planning staff.”
Nichols has wanted to develop the parcel of land for decades, and said in May, “We’ve learned from our past.”
Nichols said the plan is a culmination of what county planning staff has suggested would be appropriate for that corner and what would appeal to the community.
He said the development is designed to offer “missing middle” housing options.
He said design elements will create a feeling that “it was organically built over time.”
Nichols also said the plan has much less commercial elements than a plan he had hoped to develop several years ago.
The designs he has shown the community are not the formal plan, Nichols said.
Gwen Wright, director of the county Planning Department, said in May that there is enough specificity in the sector plan that any formal plan from the developer – on the southeast corner or anywhere within sector plan boundaries – would have to adhere closely to the example of what the community would include.
“The plan introduces innovative enhancements while at the same time respecting the needs of residents and maintaining the character of the community,” said Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4), whose district includes the Ashton Village area. “I can’t wait to see the positive changes that will occur as a result of the Ashton Village Sector Plan.”
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