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Park Officials in Md. Dread Fiscal Dry Spell

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One in a series of reports exploring the impact of budget cuts being contemplated by elected officials in Maryland and Virginia this session.

Just months ago, Howard County officials celebrated the $1.3 million purchase of 29 acres of prime land along the Patuxent River. It was the final parcel they needed to expand a Fulton area park to the Patuxent Regional Greenway, an open-space corridor that follows the river across seven jurisdictions from central to Southern Maryland.

But now they and other park and recreation officials across the state are worrying that they might have to slow or even stop such acquisitions. With the state facing a projected $1.9 billion budget shortfall, they fear that funding from a source that they have long depended on to fix playgrounds, buy parkland and preserve open space -- Program Open Space -- could be diverted for other purposes.

A spokeswoman for the governor said she would not comment on the issue until Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) releases his $14 billion budget proposal this week. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) last month proposed a budget designed to close that state's projected two-year $2.9 billion deficit.

Although O'Malley has publicly voiced support for the program, officials fear that the size of the state's projected shortfall puts even popular programs at risk. Open space and recreation are important priorities for the administration, but they might suffer if funding is needed for more-pressing needs, such as transportation and education.

Local officials in Maryland worry that a loss of funding, or even a diversion of funds, could mean fewer recreation areas and less open space in a rapidly developing state.

Program Open Space "is a vital tool for land preservation and for the environment," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) said.

"Our concern is that the pot is small and getting smaller," said Mary Bradford, parks director for the Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning. "People just need to know what the impacts are."

Tom Ross, executive director of the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association, said: "The potential is that the money could be diverted to other purposes. It's happened under past administrations." But Ross noted that in public statements, O'Malley has been a strong backer of the program.

Funding for Program Open Space comes from a percentage of Maryland's real estate transfer tax. The program was established in 1969, and since then it has helped buy more than 5,000 park and conservation areas. In Prince George's County, officials estimated that Program Open Space has provided 90 percent of the dollars used to buy open space and half of the dollars used to develop land and programs for parks.

"Over time, it's been a very important funding source for us," said Chuck Montrie, park planning supervisor for the Prince George's County Parks and Recreation Department.

Last year, Montgomery County officials received $4 million from Program Open Space to buy 32 acres near Black Hill Regional Park. The purchase will help protect the lake in the park, Bradford said. Without the funds, the county would not have been able to make as timely a deal, she said.

It's not just large projects that Program Open Space helps support. Montgomery was able to use funds from the program to remodel the tennis center at Cabin John Regional Park. A shift in priorities for Program Open Space could slow many Montgomery projects, Bradford said.

One of the higher-profile Montgomery projects that could be delayed is the effort to create park space in the area of downtown Silver Spring. Residents and workers there have been asking for green space after losing the artificial turf area that was installed temporarily on the site of an old parking garage at Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive, Bradford said.

Efforts to build parks and recreation facilities in the growing upcounty region of Montgomery could also be affected.

Ross, of the recreation and parks association, said the state grants play a significant role in giving residents access to parks and recreation. Much has been written recently about out-of-shape Americans, and outdoor activity has never been more important, he said.

"The parks and recreation play an important part in community well-being, in building community cohesiveness and in providing opportunities for young people to be physically active," Ross said.

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