Anne Arundel County could be forced to pay the former owner of a Broadneck peninsula horse farm double the $500,000 she got for it in 1998 if a bill before state legislators becomes law.
When Betsy Gleaves sold the 12-acre farm to the county, she thought she was setting up a lasting memorial to her late husband, Andy Smith, who was an avid horseman and riding instructor.
She knew area residents didn't want the bucolic property covered with townhouses and extracted from the county what she thought was a guarantee that it would remain an equestrian center.
But when county officials unveiled plans last summer to use most of the land for ball fields, Gleaves got angry, as did a number of residents, many of whom wrote letters to County Executive Janet S. Owens, begging her to rethink the project.
County officials had consulted with a committee of residents, most of them associated with youth sports, and came up with a plan for the site that includes two athletic fields and a 6-acre equestrian center. Gleaves has said she believed that when she sold the land to the county, it would never be used for sports fields.
No one expected the issue to wind up in the General Assembly. But Del. James E. Rzepkowski, a Glen Burnie Republican who doesn't represent the Broadneck peninsula, introduced a bill last week to "keep government honest" and possibly create political flak for Owens, a Democrat who is running for re-election.
"We have an obligation to make sure that the promises government makes, government keeps," said Rzepkowski, who added that he had no intention of making Owens' political life miserable.
"This is a truth-in-government issue," he said.
The bill, if adopted, which some say is unlikely because it is partisan, would force the county to pay Gleaves, who lives in Clarksville, as much as $500,000 more.
Broadneck residents didn't seek help from Rzepkowski, but if the bill helps save the farm from becoming covered with ball fields, all the better, said Diane Rey, a Broadneck resident and a leader in the fight to restrict the property to equestrian use.
"There is a growing community opposition to the county's plan for the Smith farm," she said. "So far, the county is simply turning a deaf ear to this growing opposition."
Albatross for Owens?
Others who worry that the disagreement over the old farm could turn into a political albatross for Owens, who has supported plans to turn it into soccer fields despite opposition.
It isn't the first time that an Owens project has been opposed in the General Assembly. Last year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller introduced a bill that scuttled plans for a Safeway store in Deale, a plan the Owens administration supported.
"It's an election year, and you are going to see a lot of strange things happen," said Dennis M. Callahan, the county's director of recreation and parks. "Whenever you see someone introduce something outside their district, you have to be skeptical of the reasons why."
A list of those who will testify in support of the Rzepkowski bill includes former County Council member Diane R. Evans and Gary, whom Owens defeated in the primary and general elections, respectively, in 1998.
"I think that speaks for itself," said Callahan, a former Annapolis mayor.
It's unclear how much support the bill will gain, especially because none of the delegates who represent the Broadneck area chose to support the measure after talks with lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, a former Annapolis attorney who wrote the 1998 land deal for Gleaves and who supported Gary in the 1998 election.
`Strictly a county issue'
"We clearly believe that whatever agreement there is over that property is strictly a county issue," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat. Busch met with Bereano and Sen. John C. Astle, who represents the Broadneck peninsula.
"I don't think there will be any real movement to pass that [bill] because it would put huge restrictions on counties," Busch said, referring to the effect the legislation could have on agreements between jurisdictions and landowners.