Farm's future at stake

The Naval Academy's land is one of the top two contenders for a state-run horse park. Some say it could bring needed development. Others hope it will remain an oasis.


The old Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, with its white picket fences and red-roofed buildings on gently rolling land that resembles the English Cotswolds, has emerged as one of the state's top two choices for a planned Maryland Horse Park, but few parties are clapping.

In a significant step forward, the Maryland Stadium Authority site selection committee met Friday to evaluate the 857-acre farm in Anne Arundel County for a feasibility study for a major equestrian venue envisioned as Maryland's answer to Kentucky's state-supported horse park.

Plans call for a 5,000-seat arena and an outdoor amphitheater for horse shows, along with an equestrian museum and trails for recreational riding.

The seven-member committee compared the historic farm with the other finalist, Fair Hill, a 5,000-acre state-owned preserve in Cecil County popular for steeplechase racing, fox hunting, bird watching, mountain biking and other outdoor pursuits. The committee's choice for a feasibility study is likely to be ratified and announced by the authority board this week, officials said.

Support from other key quarters for changing the quiet nature of the Gambrills dairy farm - principally Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and the Naval Academy - has been tepid at best.

Owens said in an interview Friday that she would reserve judgment until she had seen a feasibility study of the Gambrills site, adding that she had serious concerns about water, sewers, taxes and other matters.

"People ask me if I don't like horses, and nothing could be further from the truth," Owens said. "But this is on one tight timetable, and this is not a project I invited."

The Stadium Authority has put the horse park project on a fast track and expects to take a bond bill to the General Assembly during the 2006 session.

The Naval Academy's spokesman, Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, said, "We're open to ideas, but as of now, nobody has brought any formal proposals to the Navy.

"As such, we have not made any decision or commitment on the long-term leasing of this property but are certainly open to any proposals."

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer took the lead on making a horse park proposal to the state this summer, suggesting public land parcels in the county, such as the dairy farm and the closed psychiatric state hospital in Crownsville. Owens was not a partner to the original proposals.

Alison L. Asti, executive director of the Stadium Authority, said the project architects were drawn to the topography and buildings on the Gambrills farm, which is being leased to a family-owned certified organic farming company.

At a meeting last week, Asti persuaded Owens to read a feasibility study before taking a stand, but in an Oct. 5 follow-up letter to Asti, Owens repeated her concerns, including negotiating with the Navy, saying, "I strongly suspect that the issue of whether a horse park is an appropriate use of the farm is one that has yet to be vetted at all necessary levels of the federal bureaucracy."

Owens concluded that she liked the horse park concept.

The chairman of the County Council, Ron Dillon Jr., told Asti in a letter dated Friday that he would support a horse park on the Gambrills property.

The dairy farm, founded in 1913 to provide safe milk to midshipmen in the age before pasteurization was in wide use, remains federal land that, by law, must retain its agricultural character. In 1998, the farm ceased operating as a dairy source for the academy, which then leased it to the Horizon Organic Dairy Farm for seven years.

The current leaseholder, MD Sunrise Farm LLC, grows hay, peas, soybeans, corn and pumpkins, said Marian Fry, a co-owner.

"We are very anxious about the [horse park] outcome," Fry said. "This county needs regional pockets of viable agriculture. This is a vital oasis in the middle of highly developed land."

The farm is near new housing tracts in Odenton on Route 3, which would probably be expanded to handle the traffic that would approach the horse park from Interstate 97.

Anne Arundel County has about 8,000 hotel and motel rooms, Annapolis officials said, a factor the site selection committee will weigh.

Mike Dean, a neighbor to the Gambrills farm since 1998, said he is willing to bet on the horse park.

"I'm in favor of the equestrian center as a good thing for the community," he said. "It's going to bring traffic, no question, but it's going to bring economic development to the county and the state. Besides, who's to say Fort Meade couldn't someday use it as base housing?"

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