Top leaders reject plan to build ball fields

Ehrlich, Schaefer say county told former owner land was for horse center

Anne Arundel

February 12, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

William Donald Schaefer, A dispute over the fate of a 12-acre farm in Broadneck became tangled in the highest levels of state politics yesterday as the governor, the comptroller and the speaker of the House of Delegates all weighed in on Anne Arundel County's plans to build two athletic fields on the property.

A long, emotional battle between Anne Arundel leaders and the former owner of the property boiled over at yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting, when Comptroller William Donald Schaefer questioned a county decision to build lighted ball fields at the farm. State funds were approved three years ago, but the former owner said she was promised when she sold the land that only an equestrian center would be built. The county eventually built a 6-acre center on the site.

"You have a nice farm with open land down there, and you're going to destroy it," Schaefer said, after hearing testimony from county parks and recreation officials. "That's not right."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he also believed the county had promised Elizabeth Gleaves that the farm would be used only for an equestrian center.

Schaefer and Ehrlich then voted not to sign off on a $250,000 bond to help the county build the athletic fields. The other board member, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, sided with the county.

The 2-1 vote handed a defeat to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who secured state money for the project in 2001. He also worked on the project as a county parks employee.

Before yesterday's hearing, he met with Ehrlich and Schaefer to make the case for the athletic fields. Later, he called the board's involvement, and Schaefer's statements in particular, "inappropriate."

"The Board of Public Works is way out of its scope, second-guessing public policy made by local elected officials," said Busch, who has been criticized for maintaining dual roles as a state leader and county employee. The attorney general said last year that he could serve in both capacities.

The governor, who has tangled with Busch over his proposal to bring slot machines to Maryland, was diplomatic: "This is a very difficult issue, because the Speaker of the House is a good friend of mine, and we both have an interest in ball fields."

Schaefer criticized the county after hearing testimony from Gleaves, who said she sold the farm at below market value - $500,000 - because former county executive John G. Gary promised it would be used only for an equestrian center. Gleaves asked the Board of Public Works not to finance the county's efforts to put ball fields on the farm.

County officials said yesterday that the contract for the 1998 purchase made clear that the land might be used for more general recreation.

Although Schaefer and Ehrlich sided with Gleaves, the governor said he understood the county's position and promised to work with County Executive Janet S. Owens to find other sites for athletic fields.

"This decision is most regrettable," Owens said in a statement after the vote. "Unfortunately, the public process has been circumvented. This issue was debated within the community for a full year prior to council and legislative debate."

Matt Diehl, a spokesman for Owens, said it was too early to determine how the decision will affect the $2 million project, but said the county executive would meet with state public works officials to discuss alternatives.

Yesterday's hearing gave supporters and opponents of the ball fields a chance to rehash arguments they exchanged when the county was developing plans for the property several years ago.

Gleaves delivered emotional testimony, describing how her late husband was born and raised on the farm and wanted it to be devoted to horses. Gleaves said she had a clear agreement on the future of the property with Gary but said his successor, Owens, violated that trust.

"This is not right, and it's not right for the state in any way to support this immorality and lack of ethics in government," she said.

Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who represented Gleaves in negotiations over the property, also spoke against the county's plans, though he said the need for more ball fields in the Broadneck area is genuine.

"There never was any intention ... for this to be anything but an equestrian center and a horse farm," Bereano said. "The [recreational] needs are well-meaning but, respectfully, absolutely meaningless."

After listening to Bereano, Ehrlich asked the lobbyist why plans for the property had moved toward including ball fields. Bereano blamed county leaders.

"The real powers locally have prevailed, but that doesn't make it right," he said.

Those who defended the county's position stressed the need for more athletic fields on the Broadneck peninsula. "We're not asking for any frivolous, exorbitant stadium-type thing," said Chuck Simpson, past president of the Broadneck Recreational Association. "We just want to get the kids on the fields."

Simpson, who said his organization serves about 6,000 children, drew Schaefer's ire when he said 248 people signed a petition supporting the ball fields.

"The petition was set one way," Schaefer said. "It's not fair."

The former governor then fired a series of barbed questions at county parks officials, who said they had always been told the farm would include athletic fields. Schaefer questioned how they could have expected to build ball fields when Gary had promised Gleaves her farm would be used for an equestrian center.

"I don't think you know what Gary had in mind," he said.

The comptroller dismissed the 6-acre equestrian center as "a little bitty place."

He concluded by saying the county's actions were an example of why many people don't trust government.

Ehrlich took a more neutral stance, saying he believed Gleaves' claims but thought Owens had "acted with all good intent."

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