Montgomery County school board reclaims farmland - to build soccer fields

By Robert Samuels
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 10:57 PM

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.

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