Orchard Hills Residents Work to Protect Homes From Development Impact

Photo | Brent Pernak, Cruising Altitude Photography LLC Developers removed rows of mature trees in February that had long served as a light and noise buffer for homeowners whose property backs onto the Darnestown Safeway loading area.

Photo | Brent Pernak, Cruising Altitude Photography LLC
Developers removed rows of mature trees in February that had long served as a light and noise buffer for homeowners whose property backs onto the Darnestown Safeway loading area.

In February, Orchard Hills homeowners whose properties back onto the Darnestown Road Safeway and border the new Chase at Quince Orchard were taken aback: Developers had just cut down rows of mature trees to install a larger drainage pipe. The existing pipe running below those trees line was not adequate for the new development of 80 townhomes and 26 single-family homes. The Chase is currently under construction on a 14-acre parcel located across the street from Quince Orchard High School.

Those 40-foot white pines had long served as a noise and light buffer to the Safeway loading area. No one had notified adjacent property owners of their pending removal.

Residents began a months’ long campaign, seeking remediation of this problem and another construction-related issue: stormwater runoff onto properties adjacent to The Chase. A gorge caused by runoff at the end of Kimberly Grove Road will cost Orchard Hills homeowners an estimated $140,000 to fix. Runoff also impacts backyards of adjacent homeowners on McDonald Chapel and Charles Hill.

And residents did their research. A committed group of homeowners led by Christina Mirabello whose property was most affected by tree removal, Scott McDowell who battles runoff, and Steve Lawrence who lives in the adjacent Willow Ridge community—in addition to Caleb Hubble, Orchard Hills Homeowners Association community manager—have found legal agreements, City of Gaithersburg ordinances and Maryland state ordinances that they believe the new development is violating.

These include

  • 1989, 1990 and 2007 legal agreements with Safeway that require the installation and maintenance of landscaping and fencing to shield adjacent properties from noise and light;
  • The City of Gaithersburg code Sec. 24-220. – Construction, maintenance, screening, drainage and lighting requirements that mandates light, noise and visual screening for adjacent residential; and
  • Maryland Code of Ordinances §. 8-25 that stipulates “approval of a stormwater management plan does not create or affect any right to direct runoff onto adjacent property without that property owner’s permission.”

In the interim, their enjoyment of their homes has diminished.

“It has affected … the quality of life between the noise and the light pollution, the awful view of the old, decrepit fence that does not block the view of the shopping center that can now be seen above the fence, and the loss of the view of the gorgeous, established trees,” said Christina Mirabello.

The Mirabellos moved to Orchard Hills in June 2018 with their young daughter. The backyard sold them on the house. On nice evenings in spring, summer and fall, they would dine outdoors.

Neighbor Walter Johnson and his wife, Latoya, hear Safeway deliveries at night. “Safeway deliveries occur nonstop. I learned from our HOA that deliveries are not to occur after 9 p.m. Deliveries occur after 9 p.m.,” he said. “I have witnessed deliveries occurring at 10 p.m. and close to midnight.”

He is also concerned about security now that the screen of trees has been removed. “We are considering putting curtains up over the patio door. All of our sunlight will be blocked,” he said. “We aren’t spending time in the backyard as much as we used to.”

Neighbor Rebecca Hallam said, “The removal of the trees completely changes the landscape and the look of our street for the worse. The (retaining) wall is an eyesore as well as the lights and the Safeway building.”

Scott McDowell, who has lived in Orchard Hills for 17 years, said that until recently, he had not set an alarm clock. He would sleep with the windows open and wake to the sunlight. Now that the tree buffer is gone, he needs to close his windows and pull the curtains; it is too bright and noisy to sleep at night.

On May 22, nearly 20 residents attended in person or dialed into a 2.5-hour public meeting at Gaithersburg City Hall. In attendance were Trudy Schwarz and Greg Mann from the city’s Planning Division, Bill Robinson from Stormwater Risk Management, Atiq Panjshiri from Montgomery County’s Permitting Services, The Chase property owner Russell Johnson, and land use and zoning attorney Stuart Barr with Lerch Early Brewer as developer representative.

Sheena Saydam of Saydam Properties Group spoke on behalf of Orchard Hills homeowners. She noted that due to tree removal and loss of the Safeway buffer, adjacent property values will drop 10 percent, meaning a loss of at least $60,000 per home. When comps drop, the entire community is adversely affected, she added.

Toward the close of the meeting, Johnson assured homeowners that the noise and light pollution caused by the removal of the trees would be addressed.

Barr agreed to create a concept for remediation by the following week, but he cautioned this would need to be run through city channels.

As of June 5, homeowners had not seen a remediation plan.