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Lawsuits may force Comsat to council
Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006

by Susan Singer-Bart

Staff Writer

Proponents of saving the Comsat building in Clarksburg may get a chance to present their case to the County Council after all.

In reaction to two lawsuits challenging the Planning Board’s refusal to send the matter to the County Council, the board will hold a public worksession Thursday to decide whether or not council members will get a chance to decide the building’s fate. The Planning Board will not take public testimony Thursday but will read all letters and e-mail submitted on the subject.

Planners voted in July 2005 against giving historic designation to the 1960s-era building and amending the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation to add it, despite a strong recommendation from the county’s Historic Preservation Commission.

All land-use amendments are normally sent to the County Council for action, but the Planning Board did not forward the Comsat matter.

Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation Inc. and a party to the lawsuits, researched actions by the Historic Preservation Commission, the Planning Board and the County Council over the last 27 years. He found hundreds of properties evaluated for potential historic designation that were not found to meet any of the historic criteria; still, the Planning Board routinely forwarded these negative recommendations to the County Council because only it can make the final decision about designation.

He did not find any case other than Comsat that was not forwarded to the County Council, he said.

"The only meaningful difference between the designation process for this building and for thousands of other historic buildings in Montgomery County, is that the Comsat building meets more of the criteria for designation than almost every other one in this county," Goldstein wrote in an e-mail he sent to supporters of saving the building.

To comment

Write to the Planning Board via e-mail to mcp-chairman@mncppc-mc.org, fax at 301-495-1320 or delivered by Thursday to 8787 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910. If the matter is sent to the County Council, it is required to hold a public hearing on the matter, which would give preservationists another chance to make their case.

The building’s owner Berwyn, Pa.-based LCOR, has fought against historic designation saying the 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.

Planning staff thinks the campus can be developed without demolishing the building.

Goldstein is arranging for the building’s designer, Cesar Pelli, a master architect, 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.

"Montgomery Preservation feels a certain obligation to show how this is a plus not a minus for redevelopment,” Goldstein said in an interview. ‘‘We think this is a good investment and will hopefully win over the owner as well as county officials who are skeptical."

The county’s Historic Preservation Commission determined in May 2005 that Comsat, which opened in 1969, was historically significant not only because of the early satellite work done there, but also because it was an early Pelli design.

The building meets six of nine criteria for designation, according to the commission.

The building, facing Interstate 270 at the northern entrance to Montgomery County, signals the county’s technology preeminence to the world, said Julia O’Malley, chairwoman of the county Historic Preservation.

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