Horse plan saddling up

State officials weigh study for Fort Meade quarantine facility

September 22, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

State officials plan to study the viability of locating a national animal quarantine facility at Fort Meade's shuttered equestrian center to serve the Mid-Atlantic region's bustling horse breeding industry.

Legislation submitted Monday on behalf of the state Department of Agriculture asks the County Council to endorse state funding for a $60,000 study, which would explore creating what would be the fourth such facility in the country. The others are in Newburgh, N.Y., Miami and Los Angeles.

It could serve thousands of horses a year.

The facility would be run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The land on the 7,600-acre Patuxent Research Refuge is controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior, allowing for a relatively smooth transfer.

The location of the 14-acre equestrian center, which closed last year, is part of its appeal. It's about 10 miles from Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, five miles from Laurel Park and seven miles from a proposed state-run equestrian park in Gambrills.

"This is the only specific site we are looking at," E. Keith Menchey, assistant secretary for policy development and evaluation for the state Department of Agriculture, said Wednesday. He has discussed the idea among horse breeders for two years.

An initial estimate for such a quarantine facility is $60 million. But state officials said the existing infrastructure on the site, which includes two wooden barns, outdoor riding rings and wooded trails, offers a potential for significant cost savings.

"It already has a double fence, which is required for a quarantine facility," Menchey said. "It has two large barns and space to build others."

State officials noted another benefit: The potential spread of disease would be reduced because there are no other farms in immediate area. The site is flanked by Route 32 and county-controlled Tipton Airport and can be accessed only by a service road.

"You have to keep quarantined horses and livestock away from other horses and livestock," said J. Robert Burk, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. "It's ideally suited, from our standpoint."

Horses and other animals entering or leaving the country would be held at a quarantine center for three to five days. While there, federal inspectors would check for contagious diseases.

According to the Web site for the Newburgh facility, more than 4,000 horses, along with 1,158 birds, 416 swine and 41 llamas, were inspected there between September 2001 and September 2002.

Menchey said that Maryland's horse breeding industry is flourishing in Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines and South Korea and is making inroads in China. He said a more convenient quarantine center would allow breeders to keep their transportation costs down as they compete with Australia in the export market.

Officials also said a strategically located quarantine center could persuade foreigners to send their horses to compete in U.S. races and shows.

State officials said a Maryland facility would also benefit the horse industry along the East Coast. They noted that breeders in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware support Maryland's efforts also.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture received a $42,500 federal grant earlier this year for the feasibility study. The resolution before the County Council would endorse a grant request by the horse industry board for up to $21,250 in additional state grants.

Part of the feasibility study would determine how a facility in Maryland would affect demand at Newburgh, Menchey said. The state is expected to receive bids to perform the study next month. It would be completed next year.

Virginia officials rejected calls by the horse industry in 1989 for a quarantine facility at Dulles International Airport. Atlanta lawmakers pushed for permission in the late 1990s to create import-export quarantine operations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but federal officials worried that Atlanta's proximity to their facilities in Miami and Newburgh would financially cripple them.

Several county officials knew few details about plans for the Fort Meade facility. It's unclear whether the county would be asked to bear a portion of the facility's cost. State officials have asked the county to come up with up to $35 million to help build the horse park at the former Naval Academy Dairy Farm, a request that has been met with resistance from lawmakers.

Some council members said they were hopeful that more information about the quarantine facility would be forthcoming. A vote on the resolution could come as early as Oct. 2.

"It would help the equestrian industry in the region, which is always good," said County Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican. "There are still logistical questions we have to ask. ... There's still oversight that we would expect of ourselves before we enthusiastically supported it."

Fort Meade shut down the equestrian center last year because of the high cost of repairs to the property and concern about possible outbreaks of the West Nile virus.

The center boarded as many as 56 horses in 2004 and generated an annual profit of $12,000. Repairs were estimated to cost more than 10 times that amount, even as the operating budget for the Army post declined by 35 percent in fiscal year 2005.

Federal officials stopped dismantling the site when the state expressed interest in it.phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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