Site Changes Surprise QOP

A large dumpster enclosure is under construction near the sidewalk along Orchard Ridge Drive.

Construction is nothing new at the MedImmune campus in Quince Orchard Park (QOP), but it came as a surprise to many residents that an adjacent three-story office building site, recently purchased by MedImmune, is now undergoing a facelift.

According to documents obtained by The Town Courier, the adjacent residential neighborhood was never notified of the work.

Scaffolding stretches 10 feet into the sky above the office building at 101 Orchard Ridge Drive where contractors are installing cooling towers for the air conditioning system as well as new screening on the rooftop of MedImmune’s latest office acquisition.

Plywood replaces glass on several boarded up windows of the office facade facing Orchard Ridge Drive, and construction on a walled pedestrian entry plaza is underway in front of the building, with several Bobcats used to move dirt parked on site.

Construction is beginning on what city planners say will be a large structure to enclose trash along the sidewalk abutting Orchard Ridge Drive, the main thoroughfare of QOP.

MedImmune is also installing what one planner describes as “a new smoking pavilion” in the grassy area along Twin Lakes Drive in addition to some new picnicking spots, improved pedestrian connections and walkways, and a new loading dock area.

Soon, work will commence on lighting enhancements in the parking lot, and crews will re-stripe the office lot’s parking spaces to convert them from 10 feet wide to 9 feet wide per current code.

Landscaping enhancements are also in the mix. A review of the city’s file for 101 Orchard Ridge Drive reveals several existing cherry trees will be removed as part of the applicant’s extensive landscape plan.

Still, city planning officials say the work is so “minor” that it did not require prior zoning approval from the Gaithersburg Planning Commission.

Instead, MedImmune’s application for the work was approved by city staff last July although the official application never mentioned the rooftop work.

QOP resident Suzanne Scharf said she is interested in knowing what is happening on the office property. “I want to know what they are doing,” Scharf said.

She’s not the only one.

At a Council in the Communities meeting earlier this year, Gaithersburg elected officials and staff heard other residents note concerns about keeping abreast of MedImmune’s development plans in the neighborhood.

QOP President Troy Kennedy said he is still concerned about “the continued lack of notification related to construction projects nearby.”

Although QOP residents may have noticed the exterior transformation of the adjacent site as they entered and exited the community in recent weeks, they were never formally notified of the minor site plan amendment for their office park neighbor.

“Quince Orchard Park is not an abutting or confronting property owner to this property and [was] not required to be notified for staff approval,” said Greg Ossont, Gaithersburg’s Planning and Code Administration director, in an e-mail to The Town Courier.

That explanation bothers Kennedy.

Construction continues in the front of the building and on the rooftop.

“We are further concerned about any possible interpretation that MedImmune does not abut QOP and feel that both the city and our neighbor should have communicated these changes prior to construction,” Kennedy said. “Impacts associated with the location of the dumpster, removal of trees, smoking areas, etc., are of concern to our residents. We wish that the city and our neighbor had provided these plans so we could assess any impact and possibly offer alternative solutions to any concerns.”

The city zoning code reads: “The applicant for a minor amendment shall provide by mail or personal delivery written notice in a form approved by the city planning department to owners of property abutting and confronting the property that is the subject of the amendment request within two business days of filing the request and shall certify the same to the planning department.”

Directly across the street from the office building at 101 Orchard Ridge Drive sits the developing Vistas community and a grand entrance monument marker announcing the entrance of QOP on Twin Lakes Drive. Despite the location of the QOP sign, Ossont maintains the residential neighborhood legally requires no written notification.

As for the Vistas, MedImmune’s application form does not include any mention of formal notification of the work being sent to the owners of that residential development either. MedImmune lists only its own corporate headquarters at 1 MedImmune Way on the required adjacent property notification form in the city’s file.

Ossont explains the documents found in the city’s file may not tell the whole story.

“I understand that a paper copy version of the Vistas notification was not in the file … but I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that they didn’t receive any notification,” he said in an e-mail. “I trust staff certified the requirements at the time of application.”

A week after The Town Courier looked at the 101 Orchard Ridge Drive files, Ossont said the staff planner who handled the application found some more notification records that were not included in the official city’s file. Those records indicate notification was made to several adjacent property owners last July including Arbee Associates at 950 Wind River Lane, Foulger Land Orchard Ridge in Rockville, General Electric Real Estate Credit in Washington, D.C., and Syn – Ridge, LLC. Questions about the Vistas notification remained unanswered at press time.

As for why the building’s rooftop work is not mentioned on the staff’s site development approval form, Ossont said that work requires “a mechanical permit but not necessarily any level of zoning approval.”

Gaithersburg’s Planning Director Lauren Pruss said in an e-mail to The Town Courier on June 8 that MedImmune was not changing the elevation of the roof.

“The existing roof screen is not being increased in height; it is being extended in length by a few feet,” Pruss said. “This doesn’t require Planning Commission approval.”

Shortly after that e-mail was sent, Ossont said he called a meeting and the city learned some of the facts had changed.

Boarded up windows along the side of the building.

“I asked staff to sit down with MedImmune architects to take a look at any planned changes to the screening as it was not part of the amendment from last July,” said Ossont. “They are planning to modify it by extending a 3-foot section to adequately screen the new equipment. This will require a staff approval as well, so they applied for one,” he said. “The fact that they didn’t apply for the screening last year is irrelevant.”

In the meantime, Ossont said the city stopped the screening work on the roof of the office building while his staff figured out what was needed in terms of approval.

“It’s very routine and these things happen all the time with large projects,” said Ossont. “They’ll be able to proceed next week.”

Elizabeth Huntley, the senior manager of community affairs for MedImmune, said the work on the roof is to improve efficiency and sustainability at the site.

“As part of the upgrades being done to 101 Orchard Ridge Drive, we are replacing the outdated and energy inefficient air-conditioning system,” she said. “The cooling towers associated with the new system are … taller than their predecessors, and in order to limit their visibility to passersby, we plan to construct a louver or shield.”

Although the work is already underway, Huntley said, MedImmune was planning to file an application for a minor modification of the site plan in conjunction with the elevation change, and she said the company had “already notified the adjacent property owners per the city’s requirements.”

At press time, The Town Courier obtained a copy of that application filed with the city on June 11. This time the adjacent property owner’s notification by MedImmune included Churchill Development (the owners of the Vistas development) as well as MedImmune at 1 MedImmune Way, BSV Wind River LLC of Bethesda, and Syn – Ridge, LLC.

QOP Community Manager Ruchita Patel said she never received any written notification of any changes taking place at the office site, and she said the information has never been shared in the informal monthly updates she receives from MedImmune either.

Kennedy said communication needs to improve. “Our hope is that this is an isolated incident and that lessons can be learned together,” he said.