Republished with permission from Finding our Voice, a publication of www.ConservationMontgomery.org
By Ginny Barnes
Vice Chair, Conservation Montgomery Board of Directors
May 24, 2011
In early March this year the adjacent neighbors and organic farmer Nick Maravell learned of an impending Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) vote to turn the Brickyard Road Middle School site over to the county for ball fields. Mr. Maravell, who has leased the middle school site in Potomac for the past 31 years, was given just two business days notice that his lease would be terminated by the action. No one had any idea that there had even been discussions between the BOE and the County Executive. The Potomac community was shocked.
Nick Maravell is a nationally recognized organic farmer who has maintained the 20 acres for growing non-genetically modified seed corn. The site is ideal for this use since it sits in the middle of low density residential housing where no other agricultural uses interfere with creating untainted seed. Despite protests lodged with the BOE about lack of adequate notice, the vote was taken on March 8, when, at the BOE meeting, citizens further learned the sole objective of a new lease to the county was to create soccer fields. Shockingly, for two years prior to the vote, the County Executive's office was in communication with soccer organizations about taking over the site for a soccer field complex by means of a public/private partnership.
Typically, when the BOE does not plan to build on an existing school site, it goes through a process in which the property is declared "surplus". This sets the stage for other public uses to be considered, including parkland or housing with subsequent transfer of ownership. Master Plans provide direction and often specific recommendations on potential uses of surplus school sites. The Potomac Subregion Master Plan names the site specifically, saying: "The Brickyard Junior High School, Kendale Elementary, and Churchill Elementary School sites could be developed as local parks with ball fields or other recreational uses. . . Any site acquired for parkland should be evaluated to determine whether it is appropriate for recreational opportunities (e.g. trails, ball fields, etc.)."
The term "Local Park" has defined parameters in the county document that guides all park planning; The Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan (PROS). By definition, local parks are those with less than 50 acres and intended for use by the surrounding community. Had this site been declared as surplus as anticipated, it would be evaluated as a potential local park offering a wide range of amenities determined by neighborhood and surrounding community need. As such, it is subject to thorough, transparent, prescribed and inclusive public process through the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC).
That is not the case here. County Executive Ike Leggett and the BOE have circumvented an open process by leasing the property directly to the government through the County Executive's office, which will then enter into a contract with a private soccer organization using a Request for Proposals (RFP) resulting in a public/private partnership. The County Executive Office assured the distressed community there would be ample opportunity for input, especially in determining additional park amenities on the site that might include a playground, picnic area or community gardens. While that lease was pending, the County Executive Office held the first of two formal public meetings, promising the community would be engaged. The first one took place at Potomac Elementary School on April 4th and attracted more than 200 people. The community was assured by David Dise, Director, Department of General Services, that the County I Executive Office wanted input on additional uses and said that if, in satisfying the additional recreational needs of the local community, they could not fit enough soccer fields to make the public/private partnership viable to a soccer organization, then perhaps, as he put it "the juice would not be worth the squeeze".
Yet the lease they ultimately signed with the BOE a few days after the April 4th meeting specifically says the site will be used only for soccer fields. When the lease was finally made public, citizen concern that they had been victims of a deal in which only lip service would be paid to an open process led a locally-formed group called Citizens for Transparency to start researching the history of the soccer field plan. Using public documents that include the minutes of one soccer organization, Montgomery Soccer Inc. (MSI), they discovered the existence of MSI's $350,000 fund used to lobby the government for more fields.
Citizens for Transparency learned this proposal has been in the works for several years. With the constrained language of the lease, it appears that a two-year deception perpetrated on the public is complete. It includes violation of Potomac Master Plan language regarding recommendations for the 20-acre school property. Also uncovered was the revelation that a well-known lobbyist had been hired by MSI to obtain new development opportunities for soccer fields. This has raised the level of controversy to a countywide concern. The lease designates only ball fields. It states "the County or its agents shall use the leased premises solely for ball fields and improvements associated with that use such as a parking lot and amenity facility." No sharing the site with a scaled back organic farm. No playground, no community gardens, no nature. Only ball fields. The second public meeting is scheduled for Thursday, June 9th at 7:30 p.m. in the Potomac Community Center and is intended to focus on the RFP. The County continues to move ahead without addressing discrepancies in the lease language.
In a recent parallel issue involving Rosemary Hills-Lyttonsville Local Park, the BOE endeavored to serve the Bethesda Chevy Chase area with a site selection process that involved 'taking' that park for a new middle school. In a well-reasoned but impassioned letter to the BOE President, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier said: "...we cannot sanction the conversion of parkland we are pledged to protect and preserve." Combined with local public outcry, Rosemary Hills Local Park was spared, but Rock Creek Forest Park in Kensington was identified as a substitute school site. Because the County Executive and the BOE have ignored the public, circumvented recommendations in the Potomac Master Plan -- and appears to have also lied -- there is no process available to fight for this open space as the Planning Commission and neighbors did for Rosemary Hills. The precedent being set by this case serves as a warning to every community Master Plan. Civic organizations throughout the county have worked tirelessly to defend and uphold Master Plans as the planning tools we can all count on to predict and determine growth. If the lack of any public process regarding the Brickyard Road site is allowed to stand, this will surely happen elsewhere in the county using similar tactics.
There are dozens of unanswered questions about how we reached this point with a lease already signed and an RFP looming with no review whatsoever of the site suitability for the proposed use -- a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. There should be a preliminary traffic study to determine if a mini-Soccerplex superimposed on a neighborhood of narrow winding roads without sidewalks is appropriate. The BOE leased the site to Mr. Maravell for $1,300 a year, in line with what farmers usually pay per acre. But the Board is leasing it to the county to turn over to soccer use for $1,500 a year, only $200 more. If organizations like MSI have money to burn on lobbyists instead of maintaining the fields they already manage, why should they receive such a sweetheart deal on 20 acres in Potomac?
One of the most troubling aspects to the turn this issue has taken is the actual loss of Nick's Organic Farm and what it represents to Montgomery County and the food movement. Organic farms are all about the soil. Mr. Maravell has been building soil on the site for 31 years. County Executive staff has described the farm as "vacant land" and said it "serves no public use." Are soccer fields a better use? How do we know? To overlook the unique isolation from other farms generating genetically modified pollen as well as the potential of the farm to become a down-county anchor linking our much touted Agricultural Reserve with emerging models of local food production and environmentally friendly farming is shortsighted. Why not consider amending the lease to permit educational as well as agricultural activities, so this site becomes part of a cooperation with appropriate nonprofit organizations in the county and in the region, demonstrating to citizens the origin of food, the connection of local food to food safety and security, as well as becoming a mentoring and incubator facility for the next generation of farmers?
Why isn't producing healthy and safe food as important as soccer? And why don't we consider the farm at least as valuable a public use and asset to our community as soccer? Montgomery County has been celebrated and cited as well- educated and visionary. Why miss this chance to uphold that reputation? As each day passes and new information surfaces, it seems more critical to stop this flawed process and start over. If soccer fields are really the best use of land, then we all deserve an open, inclusive and transparent process to determine it.
The views of a particular Board Member of Conservation Montgomery may not reflect the views of each Board member or their respective organizations on every topic covered in the Finding our Voice op/eds.