Navy taking lease offers for farm

Among possible uses is a horse park

bids are due by March 19

January 19, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

As the Navy begins accepting lease offers for an 857-acre former dairy farm in Gambrills, the director of the Maryland Stadium Authority told state lawmakers yesterday that it is still determining whether to seek approval for a horse park on the property.

"We have a new County Council, new county executive and a new governor," Alison L. Asti, the authority's executive director, told a House of Delegates subcommittee yesterday.

"We need to make the rounds," she said. "We do not know their views, so we would need guidance on what direction to take."

The authority's 2005 proposal to build a state horse park at the site triggered speculation about the use of the Navy-owned property in western Anne Arundel County. Federal law requires that the use be rural and agrarian.

The cost of building a horse park on the Gambrills site has been estimated at $114.2 million, according to a feasibility study submitted last year by the authority. The horse park would include a visitors center, a museum, an indoor, climate-controlled equestrian show ring with 2,500 fixed seats and stables for 840 horses.

The Navy announced this week it would begin accepting lease offers for the dairy farm property, formally making available the pastoral tract for a state horse park, a mining operation, an organic farm or other uses. Navy officials are asking for lease proposals, for a period of no less than five years, to be submitted by March 19.

"It is a significant development," County Executive John R. Leopold said of the Navy's decision. He added that it was in the interest of the county "to control the destiny of that property."

The future of the Gambrills farm, which is within a few miles of fast-growing Fort Meade and within miles of major shopping centers along Route 3, was widely debated during the fall elections.

Leopold, a Republican, and G. James "Jamie" Benoit, now the Democratic County Council member for the area, have opposed the horse park. They said that project would clog traffic and would not preserve the rural-agricultural nature of the property, as requested by the Navy.

Proponents of the horse park have said that it would enhance the pastoral nature of the property and lead to the preservation of historical buildings there. They also noted that it would generate nearly $10 million a year in state and local taxes and create a new market for agriculture services at a time when active farmland is disappearing across Maryland.

"It is an oasis in the middle of a populated area," Asti said.

For most of the 20th century, the property was home to a dairy farm that supplied milk for Naval Academy midshipmen. The property was then turned into an educational center for all-natural farming and a corn maze, and then into an organic farming operation.

The Navy decided to accept lease offers after receiving expressions of interest from six parties early last year, including one from the stadium authority.

The other initial proposals were from Chaney Enterprises and Reliable Contracting Co. Inc., which have a joint proposal to create a sand-and-gravel mine; Maryland Sunrise Farms LLC, the current leaseholder of the Gambrills property; Chesterfield Farms, a Crofton-based operation, which also wants to maintain an organic farm; and the Halle Cos., which has not elaborated on its plans.

Chaney and Reliable will submit an application for a mining operation, which would create a permanent 200-acre lake over 10 to 20 years, said Jessica E. Gallimore, a representative for Chaney.

"We're enthusiastic about the opportunity to be considered for this project," Gallimore said.

Representatives for Chesterfield and Halle did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Edwin R. Fry, managing partner of Maryland Sunrise Farm, applauded the Navy for moving ahead in its process and said his operation will apply for a lease.

"It is very good for the property that they have stepped forward," Fry said. "For the last three years, as an interim lessee, I have had a short-term vision; that is not good for the property or the Navy."

The Navy noted in its lease notice that any agreement would not go into effect before February 2008. In documents, military officials said it was looking to "enter into a long-term business relationship with a responsible party who will provide good stewardship over the property while maximizing its value to the U.S. Naval Academy."

Leopold said he wants to closely collaborate with the surrounding communities to get input on an appropriate use for the farm. He mentioned a community garden as one idea.

Benoit said he will recommend to new U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, to request a federal appropriation equal to the fair-market value of the lease so that the land can be preserved in its present state. Benoit sent a letter yesterday to Sarbanes on the issue.

"I would like the farm to stay a farm," Benoit said.

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