Neighbors worry about noise, traffic at proposed West Falls Road retreat center


If a retreat and conference center opens on West Falls Road, some neighbors worry that noise and traffic may increase, wildlife may leave the area and guests drinking alcohol may cause problems.

"Many of the existing residents are refugees from the city," Jay C. Planalp, of the 5600 block of West Falls Road, wrote to the Carroll Board of Zoning Appeals.

"We're all concerned about the impact of a commercial enterprise in the middle of our rural neighborhood," said Carol A. Kopp, also of the 5600 block of West Falls Road.

"We have a nice, pleasant, enjoyable neighborhood settled among beautiful oak, fir and dogwood trees," said Gail A. Crum of the 5600 block of Olde Oak Drive.

Some residents are considering hiring a lawyer to oppose a plan by James J. Sweet to open a center for corporate, religious and educational gatherings on 22 acres he owns in the 5600 block of West Falls Road, between Mount Airy and Taylorsville.

Mr. Sweet, who lives in a log house on the land and is co-owner of a Gaithersburg catering business, said yesterday he will meet with neighbors to explain his plans.

"I really want to do this in a non-adversarial manner. I want to dispel fears. It's really not a big deal," he said of the center.

He has invited about 30 neighbors to a meeting on his property at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, he said.

Neighbors plan to meet to discuss the issue Sunday.

"We want to get all the facts" to make "an informed decision," Mrs. Crum said.

About 20 residents of West Falls Road, Olde Oak Drive and Marguerite Court met Dec. 19 to discuss the issue.

The Board of Zoning Appeals has scheduled a hearing the week of Jan. 24 to make a decision on Mr. Sweet's request. Neighbors asked for a postponement of the hearing, which originally was scheduled for Tuesday.

The Sweet property, called West Falls Farmstead, is one-half mile west of Route 27 near Buffalo Road. It is zoned for conservation, and half the land is woodland. It contains a stream, two ponds and a 1,500-square-foot pavilion.

Professional and corporate groups could use the pavilion for informal meetings, educational groups could use the property for field trips and religious groups could use it for retreats, Mr. Sweet said.

Fourteen years ago, his mother, Betty B. Sweet of Gaithersburg, wanted to open a private recreation area on the property to be used by churches, clubs and companies for picnics.

Records show she said she would cater the food there.

To open the business, the land would have had to be rezoned from conservation to agriculture, which allows commercial recreation areas.

The commissioners rejected Mrs. Sweet's request in May 1979, after a public hearing at which several neighbors opposed the change. Residents said a recreation area would bring "people pollution," noise and traffic and would disturb wildlife.

The property had been zoned for agriculture until 1978, when the zoning was changed as part of a countywide rezoning. Records show Mrs. Sweet bought the land in 1975.

Mrs. Sweet and her late husband had operated a similar business as a sideline to their cattle and poultry farm in Darnestown, Montgomery County.

Mr. Sweet said his plan is different from his mother's. She wanted to operate a recreation area full-time, he said. He wants the retreat and conference center to be a part-time business to help him pay for maintenance and property taxes on the land, he said.

"I'm basically asking for permission to utilize the property as it's set up now," he said.

He said he would sponsor only "occasional" retreats from May through October.

Mr. Sweet is part-owner of Smokey Glen Farm, a Gaithersburg catering company. He said the business might supply food for events on his property, but added, "I would not rule out other caterers."

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