Wednesday, October 20, 2010

to make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs (updated)

Residents of the McKenney Hills-Carroll Knolls neighborhood are split over plans to build a new, environmentally-friendly school on land once occupied by the former McKenney Hills Elementary School, which closed in the 1970's. Opponents say that cutting down a half-acre of trees to build the "green" campus, to be located on twelve acres at the end of Hayden Drive in Forest Glen, is nothing short of hypocrisy.

"Cutting mature trees down for a school cannot be reconciled with its supposedly green concept," writes neighbor Juliana O'Neill in a letter to the Montgomery County Planning Board, which will review the plans tomorrow next Thursday, October 28.
New McKenney Hills Elementary School
Preliminary rendering of McKenney Hills Elementary School courtesy of Grimm + Parker Architects.

The new school, which could open by 2012, was designed by Grimm + Parker Architects of Calverton, who are also responsible for the LEED-certified recreation center under construction in White Oak. This report (PDF!) going to the Planning Board on Thursday lists many of the project's environmental bona fides, from a green roof to geothermal wells, which collect heat from the Earth's core and use it to produce energy for the building.

In addition, Montgomery County Public Schools says they've taken many steps to reduce the impact of the new campus. The new school will be three stories high, meaning it takes up less land; parking lots will be shared with the adjacent Glenwood Recreation Center; and instead of the usual two playing fields, the new school will have just one.

Opponents say that MCPS could do more to prevent this from happening. They've formed a new organization, the McKenney Hills Forest Preservation Group, to call for additional study, while enlisting the help of a lawyer and the Audobon Naturalist Society, which is based in Chevy Chase.

Nearby Oakland Terrace Elementary School is three hundred students over-capacity; this year, kindergartners are being taught at Sligo Middle School, which has ten empty classrooms. Those on both sides of the fight over the new school agree it's desperately needed to give their kids a solid learning environment.

Supporters, meanwhile, say that saving the trees isn't worth delaying the school's opening. "Please do not let a vocal minority rob us of the new school that our children so desperately need," writes Shyam Kannan.

Montgomery County Public Schools may be sending their students mixed messages by cutting trees to build an environmentally-friendly school. Bethesda developer Chris Jones is doing the same thing in Burtonsville, where his new strip mall also boasts geothermal wells but required clearing several acres of trees. But while Jones' sprawling, car-oriented shopping center is little more than an attempt at "greenwashing," MCPS has done far more to reduce the new school's impact on the planet. After all, there will remain 7.5 acres of forested land on the property, which will be available as public open space.

And this isn't the first time that the McKenney Hills-Carroll Knolls community has clamored for more parkland. For the past several years, they've been fighting to stop Montgomery College from selling their former art school on Georgia Avenue to a developer. The neighborhood has to decide whether they want to let the "perfect be the enemy of the good" and continue fighting uphill battles for land preservation, or work with MCPS, which has been working with them on plans for the school for several years.

Montgomery County residents are blessed with an expansive park system and a school system willing to reduce the impact of its buildings. While there are certainly occasions when new development could be unnecessarily harmful to the environment, it's clear that the benefits to a new McKenney Hills Elementary School outweigh the admittedly small costs.


Critically Urban said...

I grew up going to this park. It's HUGE. I used to play baseball while there was still a building on the site (though it wasn't a school at that point), as well as tennis and soccer on the fields down the hill from the school. The park is absolutely expansive and the vocal minority opposition sounds a little selfish and melodramatic to me. Cutting a dozen trees for a much great green impact will do absolutely nothing detrimental to this neighborhood and open space. If this is what we need, this is what we need!

Critically Urban said...


Tricia said...

Thank you so much for your post! One important date to make a change on, though, is that this goes before the planning board NEXT Thursday, October 28.

I am tired of arguing with them about trees. I want to hear what *they* propose to do with the 650 kids who are slated to go to DC ES #29 in the Fall of 2012. In order for that building to open on time, with an 18 month construction process, MCPS *must* break ground in January 2010. End of story.

You can also mention that a group supporting the school has formed called SOS: Save our School! Supporters of the McKenney Hills School ( The school isn't open yet so it doesn't have a PTA to advocate for it and the boundaries are not yet set so we don't precisely know what families are going to be going to the new school. But our neighborhood *needs* this new school so badly. If you had told me two weeks ago that I was going to become an activist against a "supposed" environmental group in my neighborhood in order to help to support a school that my child will never attend, I would have thought you were nuts. But here I am. Feel free to talk to me or people in our group. We are suddenly a bunch of community activist working on little sleep, babysitting each others kids and sitting around each others dining room tables trying to find a way to make this happen at the 11:59:59 hour and make sure that our voices, and the voices of kids as little as 2 and 3 years old, are heard.

This is divisive and it's hurting little kids and it's breeding mistrust amongst our community. They are making us choose sides - kids or trees. And even the most ardent environmentalist in our neighborhood (and we have people who work for the EPA, conservancy orgs, etc) will tell you that they are always going to choose their children first.

Tricia said...

That is MCPS *must* break ground in January 2011.

I really must be running on fumes! :-)

oldtoys said...

It is not a vocal minority. And it's more than a dozen trees. But the real point is, most people want to minimize (not totally elmiinate, but simply minimize) the total number of trees that will be cut AND keep the school built by 2012. Those goals are not mutually exclusive. Those speaking up for both the trees and the school have been labelled as people who don't want the school built on time. It's been vicious. A group was formed with the title "Save our School" to imply that those who wanted to minimize tree destruction obviously didn't want the school built on time. Nothing could be more false. It's also true that once a tree is gone, it's gone for good, a point made time and again by people.

Janis Sartucci said...

Glad to see you are following this issue!
One correction - you say MCPS has been working on this with the community for years. Well, there was the first architect hired in 2007 for $38,570 to plan the school with the community...and those plans are where??
This is now the second architect that came on in 2009, so there is clearly confusion about the process. The planning was apparently restarted with the new, more recent architect.
The new architect was planning a larger building with more capacity.

The new plans also call for 6 retaining walls to ring the area.
There is no evidence that these retaining walls have ever been discussed with anyone. The Board of Education certainly didn't see them when they approved the building. There is no public information on height of these walls or of the composition.

I have drawn the retaining walls in on the plans so that you can see where they will be placed:

The amount of forest to be cleared is clearly more than a dozen trees. It is 0.55 of an acre. And the resulting plan is to push the school building right up against the forest with only a sidewalk separating the two.

Some of the land that borders the school is Legacy Open Space land that was purchased from the adjoining homeowner for $1.285 million by the County. The plans appear to show that one of these retaining walls will run right up to the edge of the property along the Legacy Open Space land.

So will one county entity's (MCPS) construction devalue the other county acquisition?

Janis Sartucci said...


I'd also like to point out one of the "elephants" in the room.

When MCPS plans a school site they only plan up to their boundary line. The rest is up to the County.

This site will be - as far as I can tell - the only 650+ school on a dead end street. That is, there is only one way in, and one way out. MCPS mentioned this to the Board of Education but didn't elaborate. Even Superintendent Weast called this a "difficult" site.

Why? Because buses, cars, delivery vehicles and students will all have to enter and exit the site from the same entrance.

The entrance to the service area (lunch delivery, trash pick up etc...) will be across the sidewalk at the bus circle. Students will have to cross either a parking lot or the driveway to get to the entrance to the school.

Now go back to Hayden Drive. If cars park on both sides, traffic will be one lane. Which side of the street has volunteered to give up parking? MCPS is buying buses that seat 90 students now. The 59 Saf-T Liner HDX from Thomas Built. These are good size vehicles.

Here's the planning issue: When the plans for a new school are brought to the Board of Education the plans are only "preliminary and conceptual." By leaving the public out of the actual planning of the school buildings these issues are never resolved in advance.

Reference the Cabin John Middle School surprise 14 foot high retaining wall that was to run along the sidewalk in front of the school.
Take a look:

If the Board of Education was approving the FINAL plans instead of "preliminary" plans the public would be alerted to what was really coming to their neighborhood in advance.

There will always be friction in the school planning process as long as MCPS continues to leave the public out.

But the change in the planning process was deliberate when, in 2005, the Board of Education gutted the policy that guaranteed community involvement.

Patrick said...

Montgomery county already has a nearly 2000 student school at the end of a dead end street, Springbrook High School. Been there for at least 40 years.

Looking at a dirty, overgrown area of Parkland off Veirs Mill Road today, I would also argue that Montgomery County has too much public parkland. However unpopular, it would be greener to sell about half of it for infill development so that people don't have to drive from West Virginia and Pennsylvania for reasonably priced housing.
If that seems impractical, leased or joint development agriculture would work in more rural areas of the county.

Janis Sartucci said...

"Montgomery County has too much public would be greener to sell about half of it for infill development"

Well then D.C. must be super green! That's hysterical. It is noticeably warmer in the city. How is a warmer environment greener than an environment cooled naturally?

So buses and cars and delivery trucks and pedestrians all enter Springbrook High through a one lane, one sidewalk entrance?

Anonymous said...


For all your greenwashing, you've never heard of a concept called vacant land stabilization? Much better to transform excess urban land into “clean & green” spaces available for redevelopment and revenue generation.

Janis Sartucci said...

To be clear on Springbrook. Springbrook has 3 distinct driveways and is not at the end of a dead end street. There are side streets that come into the road that Springbrook is on and allow for flow that will not be possible at McKenney Hills.

To the planners out there - how many unused school sites are there in Silver Spring?

There is one right down the road from Oakland Terrace. The Dennis Avenue Elementary School site is dedicated school land. That site can be re-opened and used.

The rationale for overbuilding on the McKenney Hills site and leaving a dedicated school site unused would be?

Let's see the list of all the other unused school sites in Silver Spring and start talking about how they can be opened back up. There are options and choices.

But the Long Term Planning Policy that provided for lots of community input from planners, neighbors, parents and community members was gutted in 2005. Councilmember Marilyn Praisner wrote the Board of Education to protest the gutting of the 20 year old Policy.

When you gut a Policy and cut out community involvement what you get is last minute notification (as in the McKenney Hills case) and surprise plans.

And no, a few PTA parents is not the entire community impacted by a school site that will exist for 60+ years. There is more to planning than just the needs of the moment, there is the long term as well.

That's why it is important to know what all of the options are and why the Dennis Avenue Elementary School site isn't also being discussed. Overcrowding is everywhere in MCPS. Overbuilding one school site won't cut it.

Janis Sartucci said...

Based on the limited information MCPS has made public on the McKenney Hills construction, it appears that the new building will have 34 classrooms. Based on the types of classrooms the State Rated Capacity for the new McKenney Hills will be
734 students.

That capacity will put McKenney Hills at around the 7th largest elementary school in the county. (Elem schools range from 206 - 867)

This is one very large elementary school on a site with a very small buildable area.

Dan Reed said...


There are a few elementary schools in the county that have access from a single, dead-end road: Burtonsville, Roscoe Nix, and the Crossways Center in Kensington, a former elementary school that the Wheaton CBD plan suggests reopening. There's certainly precedent for doing it at McKenney Hills.

hockeypunk said...

Wow, I didn't even know they tore down that building. Guess I haven't been over there in a few years. As hypocrical as cutting down a few trees is for a 'green' building, I agree there are plenty at that park. It won't decimate the neighborhood. And furthermore: OT REPRESENT!

hockeypunk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Platteville Ghost said...

Janice says:
"To be clear on Springbrook. Springbrook has 3 distinct driveways and is not at the end of a dead end street. There are side streets that come into the road that Springbrook is on and allow for flow that will not be possible at McKenney Hills."

I have no dog in this hunt, but that's untrue. I used to live on Valley Brook Dr. For practical purposes, it's the only road into the school. Literally the ONLY other option is to can cut down Blick and over Greenhill, which still puts you on.... Valley Brook.

Here's the map:,+silver+spring,+md&sll=39.020326,-77.051271&sspn=0.004209,0.007639&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Valley+Brook+Dr,+Silver+Spring,+Maryland&t=h&z=16

The street configuration isn't substantially different from the site at issue. If anything, this elementary school location provides MORE ways to wind your way through the neighborhood.

You can also see that Springbrook certainly DOES sit on a dead-end. "Meadowbrook Drive" is nothing more than a single-house driveway. And those "3 distinct driveways" -- one of them funnels to the athletic fields and student parking, and the other two lie within 20 yards of each other, on the same side of the street.

Janis Sartucci said...


I am talking about size of facility.
McKenney Hills when completed will be the 7th largest elementary in county at a State Rated Capacity of 734. My point was that this is an extra large elementary on a deadend street with only one access point.

If budgets drop and class sizes change that building will easily house 734 students. With portables, it can go up from there.

Elementary schools are crowded all over the county, with the DCC one of the worst areas. If you want to talk "eggs" this plan puts all of the eggs in one basket.

Why aren't the other unused school sites in the DCC being considered so that enrollment can be evened out? Why is the "relief" for Silver Spring going to come from this one very small, very difficult to access site?

Go right down Dennis Ave and look at the elementary school site there. Right on Dennis. Right now Weast has already said MCPS needs about 8 more elementary schools.

As to McKenney Hills, I realize the building is not there yet, but even MCPS acknowledges that this is not a good site. Having elementary school children mix with cars and buses in ONE entrance point (not 3 like Springbrook) is not a good plan. The danger is that the students get tangled up with buses and cars. That is a known safety hazard.

The delivery trucks will cross OVER the sidewalk at the bus circle to make deliveries and pick ups.

Please show me where else that plan is in use at a public school in the County, I'd like to hear how that works.

As for OT representing, one of the complaints I have heard from the OT community is about recess. Nothing about the new school will change recess. Students will be moving from one large elementary school to another. Big recess, big lunch,etc... will be at the new school too.

Class size reduction is a recent option put in by the current Superintendent. If the budget drops and the next Superintendent has a different philosophy about class sizes that program goes away.

Isn't planning about knowing all of the facts and weighing them all before the building goes up?

We have seen what happens when MCPS withholds the details of school construction plans, see the Cabin John Middle School "wall", and the taxpayers end up paying for the lack of transparency by MCPS.

Platteville Ghost said...

Janice, please look at the map of Springbrook. Your repeated reference to 3 entrance points is misleading.

Janis Sartucci said...

The Mandatory Referral packet is now up on the Planning Board website. According to the packet:

"Using trip generation data for MCPS elementary schools, the study estimated that enrollment of 640 at the proposed school would generate 326 peak-hour trips during the morning period and 179 peak-hour trips during the evening peak period."

Here's my question: Do the residents of Hayden have any right to that information? Today is the 21st, the Planning Board meets on the 28th. What notification do residents have that this type of traffic is coming to their street? Consider that the school was demolished in 2009 and before that it was operating with a very small capacity as a special education center.

Or does the mantra "it's too late" apply to those residents as well?

Point is the planning process for public schools in Montgomery County is broken. Information, data, plans, and all the actual details of the construction are kept secret until "it is too late" and communities and parents/students are left to deal with the aftermath.

Janis Sartucci said...


I am getting McKenney when I use that link. For reference I use Google Earth.
Springbrook has 3 driveways on to the property. That allows for the separation of cars and buses at 3 separate entrances. McKenney will have only 1 entrance for all 3 uses. Cars will go in a parking area and delivery and buses will go to the other area. Students must cross some paved area to get to the entrance to the school.

Platteville Ghost said...

But that doesn't change the neighborhood's exposure to traffic at all. The three entrances all lie within several yards of each other, on the same side of the same dead end of the same street.

Janis Sartucci said...

Here is the Traffic Study for the McKenney Hills new school construction.

Unfortunately, this is not a document that requires any public notification or input. If you KNOW to ask for it, then you can get a copy and review it before new school construction is approved in your neighborhood. Savvy neighborhoods get this document early and review it. Sometimes they even request additional traffic information or additional recommendations regarding sidewalks or road usage.

If you don't know to ask for this document in Montgomery County? What kind of planning process is that?

Guess it's just called "Surprise!"

Janis Sartucci said...

Yesterday the Planning Board reviewed this matter. Earlier in the week MCPS had met with community members and agreed to save much of the forest at issue.
Note that MCPS was only counting trees over 30 inches in diameter when stating the number of trees that would be removed. The actual number of trees that were slated to be removed was actually much greater.
One of the concessions by MCPS was to put a 25 foot (I believe that was the no. in the agreement) buffer along the Legacy Open Space land that was acquired by the County for over a million dollars.
At the hearing MCPS also announced that the site will have 7 Retaining Walls at heights up to 13 feet.
MCPS also announced that 400 students will be classified as walkers to the school. (Bus service is not provided w/in 1 mile of an elementary school if children can walk.) The reality of that number is that many of these students will be driven to school in the morning.
When complete, the new McKenney Hills Elementary School @ 650 students will be at the high end of elementary school enrollment where 500 is the average. In square footage, McKenney Hills/DCC#29 will be 6th largest out of 132 elementary schools.

Stedwick 109,677
Galway 103,170
Piney Branch 99,706
Sligo Creek 98,799
College Gardens 96,986
(McKenney Hills/DCC#29 95,475)

really said...

Janis, you are a resident of Potomac Md. Butt out. As a resident of Forest Glen, I want the school built without delay, regardless of how many trees have to be removed. Leave us alone.