Arundel won't get horse park

State scraps plan after county makes a competing bid

March 14, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm and Phillip McGowan | Jamie Stiehm and Phillip McGowan,Sun reporters

The state has scrapped its quest to build a giant equestrian park in Anne Arundel County amid new, daunting local opposition: a competing bid from the county to turn the former Naval Academy Dairy Farm into parkland that would likely preserve the organic farming operation, state and local officials said yesterday.

J. Robert Burk, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, said the county's new move eliminated any chance for the state to muster the necessary political support - specifically from County Executive John R. Leopold - for the estimated $114.2 million project off Route 3 in Gambrills.

"It was a good signal to bow out. ... We were trying to reach out with open arms to the community and its leadership, but that got lost in the mix," he said. "We were not going to bring a proposal if local representatives were not in favor of it. It was disappointing, to say the least."

Burk said the board and the Maryland Stadium Authority remain committed to a horse park in Maryland. "We have intense interest from other parts of the state," he said.

Harford, Cecil, Carroll, Frederick and Wicomico counties had competed with Anne Arundel, but Arundel's central location won over Stadium Authority officials, who selected it in 2005 over Cecil County.

State officials had laid out a blueprint in Gambrills for a visitors center, a museum, an indoor show ring with 2,500 fixed seats and stables for 840 horses. It was expected to draw 800,000 visitors a year.

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, a leading proponent of placing a state horse park on the dairy farm, said the county intends to bring the federal property under the control of Anne Arundel's Department of Recreation and Parks.

Rhonda Wardlaw, Leopold's spokeswoman, would not confirm whether the county is submitting a lease proposal to the Navy, which owns the 857-acre site. The county will make an announcement Friday, she said.

"The county executive is continuing to explore and look into all options regarding the preserving the agricultural integrity of that land at the dairy farm," Wardlaw said.

A horse park faced strong opposition from Leopold and his predecessor, Janet S. Owens, along with county lawmakers. State officials were counting on the county to contribute a few million dollars to $35 million toward the project, causing Owens to balk. Her stance prompted the Ehrlich administration last year to pull back a state bond bill to fund the park.

Leopold, who took office in December, said a horse park would clog traffic in an area that is facing heavy development pressures and would not protect the rural character of the land. He mentioned in January the idea of a community garden on the grounds.

The equestrian community supports the project, saying it would be a tourism boon, would revitalize the county's struggling agriculture industry and would draw renewed attention to the state's horse racing heritage.

Vicki O'Hara, an Arnold equestrian, said she was "dumbfounded" by the state's decision.

"This was such a misunderstood opportunity, for the county and the state," O'Hara said. "There was no effort made whatsoever to explore compatibility between the county plan and a horse park."

The Navy has been accepting bids to lease the site since January; Monday is the cutoff.

Six parties expressed interest in the property last year, including 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; Chesterfield Farms, which also wants to maintain an organic farm; and Halle Cos., which has not elaborated on its plans.

Edwin R. Fry, managing partner of Maryland Sunrise Farms, said yesterday that his bid would offer a "more long-term vision" for the farming and business operation. "I believe that wonderful piece of property needs a tenant that is a good steward," he said.

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