Wheaton residents face roadblock in plan for new park
County budget deals another blow to potential recreational area
The residents of three Wheaton neighborhoods who are fervently trying to find money to turn a vacant public art school into a park seem to have run into a dead end.
That's the dire news Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring passed onto residents of Carroll Knolls, Plyers Mill and McKenney Hills in a meeting about the property last week.
"We've been down every road we can take, and we have been stopped at every single corner," she said. "We have about run out of options here."
The Maryland College of Art and Design building, which is owned by the nonprofit Montgomery College Foundation, has sat vacant for almost three years while a proposal for a townhouse development idled in the courts. The school has become an eyesore and encourages illicit late-night activity, say neighbors, who fought the townhouse project and who want the county to purchase the land for a soccer field or park.
Ervin said last week it's a race against time to find a solution that leads to a park before the foundation, which supports taxpayer-funded Montgomery College, strikes a more lucrative deal that involves much more concrete.
After being shot down several times by the county's parks department for funds, Ervin said that their best hope is to organize a united front with Wheaton's state delegation to request funds from a similar parks fund run by the state. But that, too, is a long shot if the area didn't meet the county's requirements for an open space fund, it's likely it won't meet the state's either. And that's assuming there's even money left in that pot, she said.
But Ervin also said: "I think it's the strongest option we might have."
At a time when Montgomery College is facing an unprecedented 24-percent cut to its capital improvements project funds and a 5-percent cut to its operating budget, the foundation sees the art school land as an asset, Ervin said. It is reportedly shopping around for a housing developer that could build and sell about 12 homes on the land and infuse some much-needed cash into the foundation's budget, she said. The foundation is asking for at least $4 million for the land, but parks planners said last week that the land is probably worth slightly less than $2 million.
In the ongoing saga, the Wheaton community and its politicians have had plenty of ups and downs.
The residents won a major victory last year when a neighborhood lawyer working pro-bono helped uphold the area's strict covenant that allows only single-family homes. At that time, the foundation had entered a contract with Silver Spring-based Kaz Development LLC to turn the property into a townhouse development.
After the ruling, the foundation dropped the Kaz deal. But that was one of the last pieces of good news for the residents.
During the lengthy court battle, the county's Planning Board twice rejected requests to fund the park under the county's Legacy Open Space program. The Montgomery Parks' initiative is meant to safeguard green space in the county by funding parks in heavily populated areas. It was the residents' best shot at a pot of money to buy the land, but the Planning Board decided the art school property didn't quite meet the program's qualifications of historic, cultural and natural value.
This past summer, Ervin suggested swapping an open swath of land near Strathmore for the vacant art building, but she said that idea fell flat when it became apparent the college has no money to expand.
And most recently, Sen. Richard Madaleno and Del. Alfred Carr, both Democrats from Wheaton's Dist. 18, sponsored a bond bill in this year's legislative session that would allocate half a million dollars in state funds to create the park. But in a fiscal year where the state is struggling to pay teacher salaries, the bill never made it out of the House appropriations committee.
What frustrates residents about the situation is that the foundation acquired the land for free. The county handed over the land to the foundation about five years ago and is now expected to pay millions to get it back, said Beverly Sobel, a Plyers Mill resident who is heading the park effort.
"Our community is being held hostage by [the county's] poor decisions," she said at the meeting last week.
But the foundation was doing the county a favor by obliging officials' requests that it take over the failing art school building, which was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, said Donna Pina, the director of finance for the Montgomery College Foundation, in an e-mail to The Gazette last summer.
Since then, the foundation has spent "greatly in excess of $4 million" of its own money on maintaining and moving the art school into a new location, Pina said. The foundation moved the Wheaton art school to the newly built Montgomery College's Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center at the school's Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus three years ago. The foundation, which uses money separate from Montgomery College's taxpayer funds, paid for the construction and furnishing of the new site, Pina said.
And even if the county could scrape up the estimated $7.8 million it needs for the project -- $4 million to pay for the vacant school's land and an additional $3.8 million to build a park on it -- there's no guarantee it could pay to maintain the park in the future, said Brenda Sandberg, the Legacy Open Space program manager for the county's department of parks.
"As much as we in the parks department think this is a logical place for a park, ... it is a very hard sell," Sandberg told residents last week.
The sell isn't made any easier by the fact that the Planning Board approved more than $3 million for renovations to a nearby park in the Evans Parkway Neighborhood. That park sits directly across Georgia Avenue from the Carroll Knolls, McKenney Hills and Plyers Mill neighborhoods. All that separates them from the park is a six-lane highway that no one wants to cross, say the residents who live there.
Still, Sobel said her neighborhood isn't giving up hope. In the end, it's the taxpayers' wishes that should win out over any other interest, she said.