U.S. Senate subcommittee could abort County Executive Robert R. Neall's 11th-hour bid to turn surplus land at Fort Meade into a West County park when it meets this week.
The Defense Appropriations subcommittee is expected to place the finishing touches on a plan, proposedlast spring by Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, that would give the same 470 acres to the federally operated Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, a Sarbanes aide said Friday.
"We're pressing ahead with the transfer of all the property to (Patuxent)," said Sarbanes spokesman Bruce Frame. "It's a little too late to be looking at other proposals."
Still, if the county is serious about building a park, Frame said, the same federal legislation that is transferring surplus army land to the Patuxent research centerwould channel about $400,000 a year from a federal wildlife refuge revenue-sharing fund to build a West County park at another spot.
But county officials, who maintain that Neall's park proposal is very much alive and well among congressional circles, say no other land suitable for a park is available in rapidly developing West County.
One drawback is the cost, Neall officials say.
In an effort to balance this year's budget deficits, state lawmakers gutted Program OpenSpace, which had made money available to counties to purchase parks.Without that stipend, the county cannot afford a park, county officials say.
On Friday, Neall officials said they knew nothing about the "wildlife refuge revenue-sharing fund," or an annual $400,000 federal stipend to the county as a result of the land transfer.
"Land out there is expensive," said Neall spokeswoman Louise Hayman. "We have here a chance to get a park free from the federal government."
Even if money was no object, there is the problem of what land is available, Neall officials say.
Construction of three planned communities, which are expected to add morethan 10,000 homes to the region, has left the county hamstrung.
"There simply isn't any other greenspace left," said Mike Leahy, Neall's policy and legal adviser.
Preserving green space has been the driving force behind transferring the property to the research center, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last November, Congress approved the transfer of 7,600 acres from Fort Meade to Patuxent to ensure conservation of its mature forests, wetlands and wildlife habitat. That transfer occurs Oct.1.
Directed by Congress two years ago to consolidate its bases nationwide, the army plans to close 9,000 acres at Fort Meade. The remaining 1,400 acres is divided between Tipton Army Airfield, landfills,a sewage pumping station and 470 acres of forest and wetland.
TheFort Meade Coordinating Council, a citizens panel appointed by former county executive O. James Lighthizer and U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th, recommended last spring that the property go to the research center.
McMillen is scrambling, his aide said Friday, to find a compromise that would give the remaining tract to the research center and still allow the county to build a park there. Among the options, the Fish and Wildlife Service might enter a joint venture with the county or even lease the property to the county, McMillen spokesman Brad Fitch said.
"Mr. McMillen has always been (responsive) to a county executive's wishes when it comes to land-use questions," said Fitch. "We take Mr. Neall's park proposal very seriously. But at the same time, we don't want to derail the
work that has been done and wait another year to protect this property."
Leasing the property has been an option all along, Neall officials said. "But that isn't our preference, because ultimately we wouldn't have control over it," Hayman said.
Fish and Wildlife officials have said they will allow recreational activities, such as hunting, fishing and hiking, on the surplus land. But, Neall has said, that would not be as "user-friendly" as a county park.
Every region of Anne Arundel County, except West County, has its own countywide park, said Recreation DirectorJoseph McCann. Officials had hoped to convert Millersville Landfill,when it closed, into a West County park. New environmental rules governing landfills make that impossible today, McCann said.
Althoughno formal plan has been drafted, Leahy said recreational activities would be focused on 70 acres in the middle of the site cleared as a parachute drop zone. The periphery would remain green, he said.
Neall officials are relying on community groups lining up behind the park proposal before the Senate subcommittee completes its work Friday.
The Crofton Civic Association could pass a resolution in support of Neall's park proposal when it meets tonight, said Crofton Town Manager Jordan Harding. Harding said he received a telephone call last week from McCann, seeking to drum up support for the plan.
"If thereis a public outcry for a park, I think the senators will reconsider," Leahy said. "If not, they'll pursue some other alternative to put apark there. But that's messier than if we owned it outright."