Faced with too many people and too few parks in West County, County Executive Robert R. Neall is negotiating to turn surplus land at FortMeade into a regional park.
The county needs to lease at least 150 acres from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which controls the surplus land, to make a dent in the growing demand for picnic areas, trails and playing fields, said Joseph McCann, county director of the Recreation and Parks Department.
Hunters, some conservationists and other outdoor enthusiasts hopeto block Neall's plan. They want to keep the 8,000 acres, which became part of the federal Patuxent Wildlife Research Center this fall, in pristine condition.
Hal O'Connor, director of the Patuxent center, must decide whether the county can build and, if so, how large thepark can be.
The West County region is undergoing a population explosion, said McCann, who met with newspaper reporters yesterday afternoon. Fueled by construction of three large-scale, planned communities, the population within eight miles of Fort Meade will increase by almost 47 percent during the next 10 years, he said.
The two largest age groups that use county parks, teen-agers and adults over 45, are expected to increase at an even greater rate, McCann said. To meetthe demand for youth sports, the county, which already has 100 playing fields in West County, will need another 40, he said.
To make matters worse, the county's other regional parks -- Quiet Waters Farm near Annapolis and Downs-Lake Waterford in Pasadena -- already draw acapacity crowd, more than 900,000 visitors last year, McCann said.
"We're faced with the most critical shortage (of space) that I've seen in my 16 years with the county," McCann said.
Jim Golden, a spokesman for several hundred outdoorsmen, said they fear a park with playing fields, picnic pavilions, entrance roads and parking lots willunnecessarily ruin one of the last unencroached wildlife areas in Central Maryland. He said that the county has not explored any other options, including alternative land at Fort Meade.
Anticipating a sharp attack from hunters and environmentalists at last night's meeting, and responding to earlier criticisms, McCann said, "It's as if a soccer field is an environmental disaster.
"It used to be when we proposed a park, people welcomed us with open arms," McCann said. "Now,to listen to some of these people, you'd think I was driving a bulldozer as a county car."