Montgomery County school board reclaims farmland — to build soccer fields

There’s rancor in Potomac over a patch of land tucked behind a quiet street, where a farmer once harvested soybeans and serenity.

For decades, Nick Maravell has tended part of his successful organic farm on this 20-acre plot, which he rented from Montgomery County schools. The district had reserved the land in hopes of one day building a middle school there.

“The land is wonderful,” the 61-year-old said as he ran the dirt through his fingers on a recent morning. “We have hawks and crows looking out for trouble. We see foxes and geese and the other usual suspects.”

After 30 years of having the farmer work as a steward, the school board this month announced that it was ending Maravell’s lease with 20 days’ notice. The reason rankled as much as the short notice. The land will be used not for a school, but for soccer fields.

The land transfer also tells a more complex story about school system development, particularly at a time when open space is scarce and school enrollments are high. Educational opportunity and proper land use have long been prime concerns in Montgomery — and in the past six months, the two priorities have come into conflict.

“I always thought they would use the land for a school,” Maravell said. “Now I think of all the synthetic chemicals that could be used here. It’s always difficult for a farmer to walk away from land, but this makes it so much harder.”

When the school district installed two portable classrooms at College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville, the city government questioned whether the trailers met usage regulations. Activists protested the site choice for the new McKenney Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring, fearing that new construction would cut down too many trees. One man showed his displeasure with the move by presenting tree bark to the school board and distributing lyrics to a Joni Mitchell song.

The patch in Potomac — known as the Brickyard site because it was to house the proposed Brickyard Middle School, which was never built — is different. The school board is still reserving the right to build a school there. For now, it made a judgment call: Soccer would serve the community more than seeds.

More than 14,000 children in Montgomery are involved in soccer programs, said Doug Schuessler, executive director of Montgomery Soccer, the county’s largest youth sports organization. Overuse has left county fields dry and clumpy, he said.

A 2005 land use study concluded that the county needs at least 73 more soccer fields to alleviate that problem. The plan called for about 40 soccer fields in the southern half of the county, where interest in the sport continues to bloom. In the five years since, the county has found space for just two.

County officials began negotiations with the school district for the Brickyard site in 2009. It is by far the largest undeveloped property the district leases, with room for multiple sports fields.

“Identifying sites such as this 20-acre plot is certainly uncommon, particularly one that is in public ownership,” said David Dise, director of the county’s department of general services.

The school district bought the Brickyard site in 1973. In 1980, the district started leasing the property to Maravell, and it is now one of four publicly owned sites leased for farming in the county. Maravell rented the land for $1,300 a year, and he built his life around the property, moving his family to a home that borders it.

As Maravell ran his John Deere tractor along the fields and planted corn, he watched Potomac change. Large homes emerged on one side. Older homes were rebuilt on the other.

He knew the school board could one day choose to take back the land. But it never indicated an interest in doing so until March 3, when Maravell received a phone call from a central office staffer.

As the plans for sports fields became public, Maravell asked the same question many residents were asking: Why was the board interested in soccer instead of school construction?

With two middle schools already in the area, there was no need for another, said Patricia O’Neill, a school board member. She said the county had an interest in the soccer fields — something for kids that would be in line with the district’s mission.

“We must keep in mind that this man is running a business, not performing a public service,” said O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). “I wish 20-acre chunks of land could fall from the sky and we could place them where we needed them. But they don’t.”

Ginny Barnes, president of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, has said that the land transfer happened without enough community input. She feared that the new plan would result in even more development in the tranquil locale.

“People have built larger and larger around here, and what we’ve got is Beverly Hills now,” Barnes said. “But the underpinnings of this community are making sure we preserve our environment. What sort of fields will these be? How does that affect groundwater? Are they using pesticides? There’s a million questions.”

O’Neill said the disputes in the situation are similar to others the school board has faced when developing land designated for schools. She said the board could still someday put a school on the Brickyard plot, as long as it gives two years’ notice.

“I could imagine what would happen if we built an actual school there,” O’Neill said. “I just wish we could put signs on all our property that say ‘school site.’ I think people drive by and grow accustomed to the woods and acreages and forget that, one day, that all will change.”

Working on a 10-year-lease at $1,500 a year, the county plans to get private developers to bid on designing and maintaining the property. That process usually takes at least 10 months, Dise said, with public hearings at multiple stages.

Some concessions, Dise said, have been made: The soccer fields will not have lights, so residents won’t be disturbed at night. There will be no artificial turf, to preserve the area’s natural feel.

And Maravell will get an extension until the end of the year. That will give him one last season to reap the seeds he has sown.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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