Assembly debates Owens' land-use policies again

County Republicans seek to limit what sites can be used for

Smith farm at issue

March 01, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens' land-use policies were challenged yesterday at the General Assembly - for the second year in a row.

At a hearing on a bill that would prohibit county governments from buying land for one purpose and then changing their minds, Owens' predecessor joined a group that criticized the way she is handling a land deal on the Broadneck Peninsula.

"The government created this problem," said former County Executive John G. Gary, referring to the Owens administration's plans to use part of a 12-acre horse farm for ball fields - although the former owner says she sold it with the understanding that it would be used as an equestrian center.

Betsy Gleaves, former owner of the Broadneck Peninsula farm, said through tears, "I was promised this, and it's the only reason I sold the property to the county."

Gleaves - who sold the farm to the county for $500,000 in 1998 with, she said, the idea that it would be used as an equestrian center and named after her late husband, Andy Smith - attended the hearing with her former attorney, Bruce C. Bereano, who also spoke out against the land-use decision.

The debate in Annapolis comes a year after Owens' support for a proposal to build a Safeway grocery store in South County was undercut by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Miller introduced a bill that appeared to address a zoning glitch but that eventually defeated plans for the grocery store and embarrassed the county executive.

At yesterday's hearing before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, members of the Democratic Owens administration tried to quash an attempt by county Republicans to once again draw Owens' land-use practices into question.

Republican Delegates James E. Rzepkowski of Glen Burnie and Robert C. Baldwin of Crownsville recently introduced a bill that they say will keep county governments across the state honest. The intent of their legislation is to protect residents from local officials who might purchase land from them with the promise of one use but then change their minds.

Gary's view

Gary, a Republican who was county executive when the Broadneck property was purchased, said that it was always meant to be an equestrian center

Broadneck residents, some of whom attended the hearing, have written to Owens asking her to carry out the wishes of Gleaves, who has remarried and lives in Clarksville.

"If the youth athletics program needs more fields, then let's look for a win-win situation," said Brian Poole, president of the Ulmstead Club, in a letter Feb. 14 to elected officials. "But let's not look for them in ways that demonstrate a lack of integrity."

Owen's opinion

Owens, who was not present at the hearing yesterday, is adamant that the contract Gleaves signed with Gary opened the door for the property to be used for ball fields. A committee of 18 area residents recommended such use after months of debate.

It's debatable whether Smith, the original owner, ever intended the land to be preserved as a horse farm.

"At no time did he ever express that he personally wanted an equestrian center on his farm," said Mary L. Windsor, Smith's sister, who lives across the street from the farm - which she said was used to grow fruits and vegetables, not to exclusively raise horses.

`A county issue'

Legislators who represent the Broadneck Peninsula insist that the General Assembly is not the proper forum for settling the dispute.

"The Smith farm situation is a county issue," said Del. Virginia P. Clagett, a West River Democrat, in a recent e-mail to constituents. "If the parties involved cannot reach an agreement, they will have to go to court and let the court solve the problem."

County officials, including Kevin O'Keeffe, Owens' legislative liaison, agree. They remember that the last time state legislators intervened in a local land use issue, their boss didn't fair well.

"Let me just start by saying I am proud to work for Anne Arundel County and proud to work for Janet Owens," O'Keeffe told committee members, who heard testimony from Broadneck residents. About 20 residents attended the hearing.

He urged legislators not to drag another county land use issue into the state political arena.

"We didn't like it last year," O'Keeffe said, "and we certainly don't like it this year."

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