Equestrian center plan dealt legislative setback

Panel rejects bill to bar sports fields from Smith farm

March 08, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Residents who want to see a farm on the Broadneck Peninsula used only for a public equestrian center suffered a setback yesterday when state lawmakers rejected a bill that supported their cause.

Members of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee voted down legislation co-sponsored by Republican Dels. James E. Rzepkowski of Glen Burnie and Robert C. Baldwin of Crownsville late Wednesday. The vote was unanimous, with one member absent.

"It was a bold piece of legislation, but I think what is important is that the residents of the Broadneck community, who felt underrepresented, had an opportunity to bring this travesty to the light of day," Rzepkowski said.

The GOP bill, which some Democrats said was introduced to criticize the land-use policies of County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat, would have forced officials to stick with a plan to turn the 12-acre farm into a riding center and not use some of the property for ball fields.

Betsy Gleaves, who lived on the farm with her first husband, Andy Smith, a retired Eastport post office manager and part-time farmer who died in 1994, sold the property to the county in 1998 for $500,000.

At a three-hour hearing before a House committee last month, Gleaves testified that she sold the land with the understanding that it would be turned into a public equestrian center where people could learn to ride.

Two additional acres of the planned park were acquired by the county several years ago from one of Smith's sisters. Part of the property is being used for an animal shelter.

A long line of equestrian center supporters - including former County Executive John G. Gary, who agreed to the sale of the land and its future use for horseback riding - also testified at the hearing.

Several county officials argued at the hearing in favor of a plan to use part of the property for youth athletics and part for an equestrian center. A committee of Broadneck residents and county employees debated for months before recommending that about 6 acres be used as an equestrian center and the other 8 acres for ball fields.

County officials have said that the contract Gleaves signed with Gary opened the door for athletic fields because it referred to "recreation purposes."

Gleaves and her supporters say those words were added so that the county could use public funds to purchase the land and were not meant to dictate the future use of the property.

At the hearing, legislators criticized the bill's sponsors for wasting their time with a matter that they said should be settled by a judge.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat, scolded Broadneck residents who support the riding center plan, saying they were insensitive to the needs of the children.

Diane Rey, who heads Citizens for the Andy Smith Equestrian Center, said the group will continue to protest a plan by the county's Department of Recreation and Parks to build two athletic fields on the site.

She and other members say they aren't against youth athletics but that county officials should keep their word to Gleaves. That's the same tack Rzepkowski used with his legislation, referring to it as a "truth in government" bill.

Elected officials representing the area opposed his bill on grounds that the General Assembly is ill-suited to settle the debate. Del. Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat whose district includes the farm and who works in the county's Recreation and Parks Department, predicted the bill will not make it out of committee.

A spokesman for Owens said yesterday that she was "relieved" that the bill had been defeated.

"Our plans are to move forward without delay," said Matt Diehl, the spokesman.

Gleaves, who has remarried and lives in Clarksville, is expected to take her complaint to court.

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