Money is next hurdle for park supporters
Appeals court blocks townhouses at former art college, but property cost could put plans for open space out of reach
With a lawsuit preventing the construction of townhouses in their neighborhood and the support of two County Council members, the residents of three Silver Spring neighborhoods hope they can turn the vacant Maryland College of Art and Design property on Georgia Avenue into a park.
There's just one problem — the foundation that owns the land is asking for about $4.5 million for the property and the county doesn't have the money, said County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park in a community meeting last week.
The MCAD building, under the ownership of the nonprofit Montgomery College Foundation, has been vacant for almost two years while a proposed townhouse development idled in the courts. The school has become an eyesore and encourages illicit late-night activity, say residents of Carroll Knolls, Plyers Mill and McKenney Hills, who want the county to purchase the land to create a park and resist development.
In an interview Friday, Elrich echoed many residents' frustration about the cost of the land, especially because the county handed over the land to the foundation for free several years ago.
"Why should we pay for something we gave them?" he said.
But it was county officials who in 2005 asked Montgomery College to take over the failing MCAD, 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.
The college merged into what is now the School of Art and Design at Montgomery College, and the county agreed to give the foundation ownership of the MCAD property to recuperate operating and merger costs, Pina said.
Although the foundation received the property for free, Pina estimates the foundation spent "greatly in excess of $4 million" of their own money, which she said is separate from taxpayer money the college uses, on the entire project. She cited the construction and furnishing of Montgomery College's Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus as a major expense, "for which reimbursement (plus interest) is expected when the MCAD property is sold."
While the residents say that's unfair, they won a major victory several months ago to shut down a proposed townhouse development on the property.
Soon after acquiring the property, the foundation entered a contract with Silver Spring-based Kaz Development LLC. In 2007, Kaz applied for—and received—an application to rezone the property for a townhouse development.
To build the townhomes, Kaz also filed a lawsuit against the residents to overturn the neighborhood's strict covenant policy that allows only single-family homes, claiming the covenant was outdated and already violated by the art school's existence.
Montgomery County Circuit Court sided with Kaz in January 2008. But with the help of a neighborhood lawyer working pro-bono, the residents appealed and in February the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the decision and upheld the covenant.
The ruling essentially voided the earlier rezoning, said lawyers who worked on the case, making it illegal to build townhouses on the property.
Now the residents have another shot at finding a way to transform the property into a park, said Beverly Sobel, a Carroll Knolls resident who is heading the park effort.
"If [the pro-bono lawyer] hadn't stepped in, this would be a sad, sad story," she said.
But the residents' best option — requesting the land be designated a park under the county's Legacy Open Space program — doesn't look probable. The Legacy Open Space is a Montgomery Parks initiative to safeguard historic properties and green space in the county. In 2007, the county Planning Board rejected the residents' application on grounds that the property didn't quite meet the program's qualifications of historic, cultural and natural value.
Two years later, Planning Board members are still on the fence about whether the property is a good candidate for the designation, said Brenda Sandberg, Legacy Open Space's program manager.
Park officials estimate it would cost between $4.5 million and $7.8 million to acquire the land and transform it into a park.
But there may be another way, said Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.
Ervin has proposed a land swap with the college, whereby the county would purchase land and trade it for some of the college's property, including the land MCAD sits on.
The negotiations are preliminary, but Ervin said the college has shown interest in the idea.
Pina said when the college's contract with Kaz expires on Sept. 30, the foundation will either enter a sale with the county or "remarket the property for development in accordance with the permitted land use."
Either way, it's clear the county will have to spend money to avoid the latter situation, Elrich said, noting that he doesn't favor purchasing land to give to the college but he supports swapping land the county already owns.
"If there is land the county has that they want, just make the deal and that's that," he said.
Ervin the idea is one of many options and said she's optimistic the residents, somehow, will have the park they want.
"This is just one step in a long process to move this forward," she said.