Montgomery County lawmakers are set to examine on Tuesday billionaire Mitchell Rales' controversial request for a sewer connection to his private art gallery in Potomac.
Rales, whose net worth is estimated to be $3.7 billion, is the co-founder of manufacturing giant Danaher, parent of Craftsman Tools. Danaher generated $16.1 billion in sales in 2011. On his 127.7-acre estate near the C&O Canal, he also operates Glenstone, a private art gallery open to visitors by appointment on Thursdays and Fridays.
Rales wants to expand the gallery, building a new museum, and has asked to hook up both the existing gallery and the addition to the county's sewer system.
In testimony before the county Planning Board, Rales emphasized the importance of sharing his private modern art collection -- which includes pieces by Pollock and Matisse -- with area students. He did not return calls for comment.
The problem is that the property is outside the county's approved plan for the sewer system, so Rales has had to apply for a waiver, which the Planning Board voted against.
The County Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee has granted initial approval for a waiver that applies to "private institutional facilities," like museums and religious institutions. If the full council approves it, the request goes to the state Department of the Environment.
"It has no impact on the environment. These people are doing wonderful things for the county at no cost to the county," said Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, and chairman of the committee. "This is as good as it gets."
But not everyone is as excited.
The request has sparked concerns about damaging the largely undeveloped area near the Potomac River and fears that granting Rales his sewer connection will lead to increased development.
The proposed sewer connection, which Rales would pay for, would need to cross beneath Greenbrier Branch, a creek that connects with the Potomac River. As a result, the connection means a potential source of contamination, said Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.
The sewer connection also violates county laws designed to prevent overdevelopment in the area, Taylor said.
"This has dangerous implications for the rest of the county," said Ginny Barnes, a leader with the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, explaining that it sets a precedent for private nonprofits that otherwise would not be allowed to connect to the public sewer.
Some organizations might feel that favoritism is at play, she added, pointing to Rales' billions.
Since 2010, Rales and his wife, Emily, have given $1,000 to County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring, and $8,000 to County Executive Ike Leggett, who voiced his support for the connection, campaign finance records show. They also have given $8,000 each to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. Equity Group Holdings, of which Bloomberg Businessweek lists Rales as a co-founder, has given $500 each to Councilman Craig Rice, D-Germantown, and Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large.
Berliner denied any preferential treatment.
"These people are doing right by their billions. Am I going to hold it against them?"