By Joshua Marks
Imagine arriving in downtown Bethesda via the Purple Line light rail. Upon disembarking you are surrounded by a tree canopy that keeps the air cool and clean. Families picnic in one of many green spaces that dot the landscape as you walk to the nearby Capital Bikeshare station and ride along Bethesda’s car-free bicycle network to your energy-efficient office building that is powered by the sun with rooftop solar panels and a green roof that reduces storm water runoff.
That vision of a sustainable urban community could become reality as Montgomery planners consider making Bethesda the county’s first “eco-district” as part of the area’s next 20-year growth plan. It updates the 1994 Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan and the 2006 Woodmont Triangle Amendment.
Bethesda’s Jewish community will be on board with the environmental initiatives, said Mitch Berliner, who founded the Bethesda Central Farm Market, which offers kosher food items and is shooting to be trash free in 2015 with a recycling and composting program.
“At the end of the day, of course Jews will embrace the greening of Bethesda or any place because of tikkun olam [repairing the world] and because Jewish people have always been on the forefront of change,” said Berliner.
But while tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase found in the Mishnah and is not an actual biblical commandment, Bethesda Jewish Congregation Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer argues that being
ecologically sound is a Jewish issue and is rooted in bal tashchit (do not destroy), one of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, found in Deuteronomy 20:19–20 and later expanded in the Babylonian Talmud.
“Bal tashchit is the principle of stewardship of the earth. Any time we make a community more energy efficient and lower its carbon footprint, I would say that we are putting into practice the Jewish law. That is a law, not just a concept or custom, but the law of bal tashchit, which is understood to prohibit any kind of senseless damage or waste,” said Schnitzer.
Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda is one local synagogue focused on bal tashchit. Its Green Tikkun Committee links Judaism with environmentalism and includes initiatives such as composting, recycling, purchasing half of its energy from wind power providers and establishing a “do not idle” goal in the driveway and parking lot.
The Bethesda sustainability plan is in the early concept stage and was presented to the planning board on Dec. 11, with public comments accepted until Dec. 25. The next step will be a staff draft plan scheduled for review this April. However, Dave Heffernan, outreach and communications manager at Bethesda Green, an information and education nonprofit, emphasized that the plan is evolving and that it is a decades-long process.
“It’s not like, ‘OK, here it is, you create it, it’s done.’ Then we move on to the next thing. It’s really a process. And it’s not just physical structures, it’s also integrating lifestyles. We want to make sure that downtown Bethesda is pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly and accessible and there’s a dynamic living community. We want to be clear that this is not just about putting up high-rise buildings with green roofs. It’s more than that,” said Heffernan.
Downtown Bethesda is home to more than 10,000 people and 60 percent of downtown residents are between the ages of 22 and 49 – a demographic that is seen as more receptive to sustainability projects such as better public transit, although the fate of the Purple Line is up in the air with the election to governor of Republican Larry Hogan, who is skeptical of the 16-mile, $2.4 billion light rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
Besides engaging younger residents, the planning board briefing mentions Montgomery County environmental laws such as Bill 32-07 that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by Jan. 1, 2050, and the briefing also addresses economic challenges in a place as expensive as Bethesda by including affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people.
The targeted districts are Battery Lane, Woodmont Triangle, Arlington North, Eastern Gateway, the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor, Bethesda Row, Arlington South and South Bethesda.
Heffernan cites Bethesda Row as a successful example of a sustainable development that improves the environment and quality of life of residents and visitors.
“It really is an inviting area for pedestrian traffic,” said Heffernan. “It has a lot of the outdoor cafe feel to it, almost a European feel to it. People seem to really like it a lot.”