A turf war over new sports fields

In rural Baltimore County, the plans for a recreation site grow, upsetting some nearby residents


Eric van den Beemt wishes there were more soccer fields and basketball courts. He wants lacrosse teams to be able to practice on a Saturday afternoon without having to rent a field. And he longs for a time when leagues won't have to beg for time in the gym and football players won't have to practice under the glare of car headlights.

As he talks about his vision, the soccer coach is standing in the middle of more than 100 acres of soybean fields and trees.

While many communities simply can't find an open lot to build needed recreation facilities, in northern Baltimore County, if there's one thing they've got, it's space.

What gets built, however, is often a source of furious debate in this area, where some farmland has in recent years given way to housing developments. And to some residents, the proposal to create a complex with six playing fields, a playground and a 32,000-square-foot building is in some ways not that different from a plan to build a shopping center.

The proposed recreation complex, on Middletown Road in the Freeland area of the county, would be built in combination with a new housing development called Shelley's Fields. The plan has pitted neighbors against neighbors, community associations against local sports leagues. It has been the subject of letters to local newspapers for months. And it has been the topic of more than one heated community meeting.

"This thing has been a lightning rod," said van den Beemt. Of those who are against the recreation complex, he said, "If they weren't opposed to this, they'd be opposing the new houses."

According to organizers, a decade ago, the recreation councils serving the area had 5,000 registrations for sports programs. Today, van den Beemt said, that number has doubled.

But the number of fields available, most of them at local schools, has stayed the same, and the number of hours that teams can play in schools' gyms has decreased, van den Beemt said.

"The creation of this park is a response to what is already happening in the community," he said. "I understand this will create more traffic. We want to be neighborly. ... But we also want to provide for the needs of our kids."

When Frank Pardum looks at the site, he sees the potential for traffic jams. He says the complex is too large, that the 600 parking spaces are what you'd expect outside a department store, not what you should find in an area where farmland is preserved. The reason people move to rural Baltimore County is to get away from crowds and clogged roads, he and other opponents say.

"We're not anti-child. We're not anti-sports," said Pardum, president of the Freeland Community Association.

"I think they mean well," Pardum said. "I think they've been frustrated that they haven't been able to find land."

Van den Beemt, who had served as president of the Hereford Zone Recreation Council, says he began searching for a place to build fields about five years ago. "I talked to farmers, real estate agents, community groups, churches, the state. ... All of it resulted in dead ends," he said.

Then, Randy Shelley, a local developer, purchased the option to buy 132 acres between Middletown and Cotter roads. He offered to give 100 acres to the Hereford Zone Recreation Council if he could build 19 houses - nine more than the zoning then in place allowed - on a portion of the property.

Van den Beemt said the developer has also offered a portion of his profits on the housing development to go toward building the recreation complex. The recreation council would raise money to cover the rest of the building costs. Van den Beemt said no estimated cost has been obtained.

Shelley did not return calls seeking comment.

County officials approved the zoning change for the property last year.

The initial plan was for the recreation council and Shelley to build a few fields, which the county agreed to maintain, said Robert J. Barrett, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks. But when the developer submitted plans to the county this year, the proposed recreation complex included six fields for soccer or lacrosse, three warm-up fields, a picnic pavilion with restrooms, a playground, an indoor facility with basketball courts, and parking for more than 600 cars.

"We're ready, willing and able to help where we can. But we're certainly not in a position to fund this," Barrett said.

County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents the area, said he was stunned and dismayed when he saw the plans submitted to the county. He said he had never before agreed to a zoning change allowing more houses to be built on rural "resource conservation" land, but said he did it in this instance for the area's youngsters.

"I feel the children in north county are neglected as far as recreation is concerned," he said.

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