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County Planning Board Approves Plan for WMAL Site

Builder now has OK for 309 homes in Bethesda, Md., where towers long stood

It looks like more than 300 homes will start sprouting soon on land that for many years served a Washington-area broadcast station.

Cumulus has crossed another hurdle in its plans to sell the notable site near the nation’s capital to Toll Brothers. At a meeting Thursday, the Montgomery Planning Board approved an amended proposal to develop the former tower site of WMAL(AM) in Bethesda, Md.

It’s a pattern that the radio industry has seen before, as values of suburban real estate grow and the popularity of AM radio is challenged. Long before Cumulus itself was ever conceived, WMAL began using the tower site in 1941. For some years the site also was home to the radio studios, which later moved down the road into Washington.

As we’ve reported, Cumulus last year received a construction permit to relocate the 630 kHz signal to the transmitter site of Red Zebra station WSPZ, 570 kHz, not far away, using four existing WSPZ towers, and keeping WMAL’s daytime power at 10 kW directional while reducing to 2.7 kW directional at night.

A Cumulus official said last month that the debt-heavy broadcast company hoped to realize gross proceeds of around $75 million by selling the land very near the Washington beltway.

Several county planning officials had submitted a staff report on “WMAL Bethesda, Preliminary Plan No. 120160290.” According to the report, Toll Brothers plans to build “159 one-family detached, 150 one-family attached, one parcel dedicated to MCPS, and various stormwater management, common open space, private road and HOA parcels.” The developer filed the plan in June of last year.

Other conditions exist in order to address community concerns, and the report explicitly states “Prior to issuance of any building permits for dwelling units, all radio towers, equipment and associated materials must be removed from the site.”

That shouldn’t be a problem, as demolition began at the tower site in September 2016.

The review will be valid for a little over five years. Toll Brothers had asked for a 10-year validity period.

AM station WMAL has a long history in and around Washington, and has seen much broadcast history in its time. Its history web page says WMAL “remains Washington’s oldest station to be operating under its original call letters.” Its sibling WMAL(FM) is licensed to nearby Woodbridge, Va.