County, school board miss chance for optimal land use

PLAYING AROUND

February 09, 2003|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

YOU HAD to know ideas were around for how to use that 300-plus acre farm the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks owns off Route 144, opposite the county fairgrounds in West Friendship.

We wrote last week about golf activist Donald Dunn, who lives in the same area, opening his campaign to get entrepreneurial, recreation-oriented ideas for the property, where he also would love to see a no-frills golf course built.

But even Dunn said he was surprised by the speed and source of the first response.

Mere hours after our paper hit county households last Sunday, Western Howard County Soccer Inc. was on his phone. It is a booming, recreation-level youth program that, said one of its leaders, cut off registrations last fall at 2,200 players for lack of fields.

Then, here at the paper, bip, bap, bop came three repetitive responses from other west countians upset with the Board of Education's insistence on building a new high school on, by its own standards, a roughly 10-acre-too-small site opposite Mount View Middle School in Marriottsville.

Among other problems, that site, according to testimony last year, will not permit adequate playing fields for a high school's array of boys and girls teams, forcing them onto nearby middle-school fields. And that will displace youth groups that book those fields fully.

Why not, all three writers said in different ways, use some of that West Friendship farm acreage for a properly sized new high school while building an elementary school, also needed in that part of the county, on the smaller site? That question has been posed before, though - and voted down.

Anyway, talk is cheap, and it can be freeing. So let's go first with the new stuff.

That would be Western Howard County Soccer turning aggressive in, at least, exploring alternatives to using fields owned and operated by either the county's cash-strapped Department of Education or rec and parks department.

"Our thinking is to lease space for some fields," said Woodbine's Craig Zimmerman, a soccer referee in his first year as the organization's volunteer president. "We predict that our program will be growing, but we can't meet the demand we have now."

Vice President Mark Skroupa, from West Friendship, is the point man on finding new fields, and he elaborated on the needs of the club that, unlike most other county youth soccer groups, operates only in the fall. The club uses 15 fields, split between those owned by the school system and the rec department.

"We have interest enough to play in the springtime, as well," Skroupa said, "if we only had fields. We've been talking for some months now about what might be done.

"The problem is that it's getting to the point where land is so expensive in the county, that even if you could find some, a club like ours wouldn't be able to afford it," Skroupa said.

"But we maybe could do something with a lease arrangement. With as many people as we have involved, we have resources," he said.

Skroupa said the group is still early in assessing its exact needs in terms of extra fields.

"Four would be nice, but even one would help - we're that desperate," he said.

The rec department has additional fields under construction at the new Western Regional Park in Glenwood, but they are a year or more off, and Western Howard County Soccer, of course, is not the only prospective user.

Now, that school proposal.

"Why can't the Board of Education use 50, and preferably 60, acres for their new high school?" wrote Marriottsville's Lou Borghan. He is one of the critics of that too-small site on Woodford Drive, which just last week received two zoning variances it needs to be squeezed into place.

"Is it that they're too far in their planning process to change their minds and are making another error?" he wrote. "Using 50-60 acres would be ideal. Variances required would be minor, if any, [and] would adhere to the county's General Plan [for minimum high school acreage]. It would also set a standard to follow, show leadership and good planning."

The school board, however, ignored every community concern, not to mention empathetic planning for sports, Marriottsville neighbors complain, and decided almost a year ago that the West Friendship land, about a mile west of Route 32, was too far west for the high school.

Dunn, with Western Howard County Soccer (and maybe some other voices, as well) in tow, expects to take his idea of generating new ways to use that farmland before the Advisory Board on Recreation and Parks on Feb. 19.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525, or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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