A squabble between bird watchers and swimmerswilderness lovers and recration buffs in heating up in Montgomery County as officials try to decide where to locate a longawaited Regional Indoor Swim Center.
A site selection committee wants to build the $4.5 million pool complex in Cabin John Regional Park, which they say is convenient to the Bethesda, Potomac and lower Kensington residents who would be the pool's prime users. The comittee's second choice is the undeveloped Wall Local Park at Old Georgetown Road and Nicholson Lane.
But county planning board members oppose the Cabin John site because they believe the park is already overdeveloped and construction of the pool would destroy quiet woods and a nature trail. The park board gave "reluctant approval" to the Wall park site, but suggested four other locations in the county would be preferable.
A final decision on where to put the pool is expected this fall from County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist. He will act on a recommendation from hearing officer Alastair McArthur, who is open to public comments until Aug. 25, and then will weigh the pros and cons of each side.
Even though the record so far shows that public sentiment leans toward using the Cabin John site on Democracy Boulevard, park officials are more than just a small group of dissidents making waves.
Their protests raise a tricky legal question: Does the planning board, which technically owns the county's parklands, have veto power over proposed development of that land? And if so, can the county's elected council members override that veto?
As Montgomery County Attorney Paul McGuckian ponders this question, swimming enthusiasts are growing impatient, worried that there might be yet another delay in the pool that has been talked about for at least 10 years.
"I hope someone will make concessions," said William Bullough, department of recreation aquatic program supervisor. "Montgomery County has had a severe lack of pools for years and years. We need this pool badly. The worst thing would be more studies."
Montgomery County currently operates only one indoor pool, the Piney Branch pool in Takoma Park. This fall the Colesville-White Oak indoor pool is scheduled to open in Martin Luther King Regional Park in White Oak, serving residents on the county's eastern end.
The Regional Indoor Swim Center, which could open by late 1984 if a site is selected this fall, would serve principally the 180,000 residents of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Potomac, North Bethesda and lower Kensington areas, said Nicholas Hillman, a planner with the County Office of Management and Budget.
The swim center is designed to include a 50-meter Olympic-size pool, a health and exercise room, spectator seating, locker rooms, saunas, and teaching facilities for small children, senior citizens and handicapped persons. The center would be open on a fee basis to all county residents for recreational and instructional swimming, but some of the biggest users would be high school swim teams, county officials say.
Each of the county's 22 high schools has a swim team, but not one of the schools has an indoor pool, said Edward Gannon of Bethesda, citizen representative on the site selection committe and a vocal proponent of the Cabin John site.
"The high school swim teams have 50 or 60 kids per team. That's more than they have on a football team. But how long do they think they could have a football team without a field?" asked Gannon, who jumped into the pool debate as a "drowsy dad" driving his daughter to swim practices at 5 a.m., the only time space was available at the county's few semi-public indoor pools, such as YMCA facilities.
The Regional Swim Center has been discussed by county planners since the early 1970s but a prolonged sewer moratorium pushed the pool to a back burner, Hillman said. The county council finally endorsed the project and this year appropriated $363,000 for design work, he said.
The site selection process began last fall when county planners organized a committee of government, park commmission, public school and citizen representatives.
After examining 53 potential sites, the committee narrowed the list to seven possibilities, with Cabin John and Wall Park the top two choices. Runners-up were Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Woodward High School in Rockville, the Corby Mansion site on Rockville Pike, a section of Cabin John park north of Tuckerman Lane and west of I-270, and the former Larchmont Elementary School in Kensington. All of the property is owned by the county.
In a report issued in May, a majority of the committee members said they favored the Cabin John site on Democracy Boulevard just east of Seven Locks Road because it provides an attractive park setting, easy access from the Beltway and I-270 and existing parking. Wall Park also would provide easy access and flat, buildable land, the committee said. County architects said there's hardly a difference in the cost of developing the two sites.
In July, however, the parks department staff issued a minority report objecting to the use of Cabin John, with which the park board unanimously agreed.
"We will not permit (the pool) to be built in Cabin John regional park," said Norman L. Christeller, chairman of the planning board. Christeller said the park commission has a policy limiting development in regional parks to 30 percent of the land. Cabin John, he said, is 40 percent developed, with an ice skating rink, ball fields, tennis courts and other recreational facilities already there.
"It would be very harmful to put this type of intensive activity in this park," Christeller said. "It would impinge very badly on a nature center we have just opened, on bird watching and observing wild flowers and trees. And the only way of access (to the pool) would require cutting down an acre of very fine specimen trees, which we object to."
Christeller said the park board is not happpy about the use of Wall Park either, because the park has been reserved for athletic fields. If Wall Park is chosen, the county should purchase other land for the fields, he said.
Instead of at Cabin John or Wall Park, Christeller said, the pool should be built either next to Walter Johnson High School; adjacent to the Woodward High School parking lot; on the Corby Mansion property, now designated for a performing arts center; or in a corner of a parking structure planned for the new Grosvenor Metro station.
The county school board Tuesday passed a resolution naming the Cabin John park as its first choice for the aquatic center, followed by Wall Park and the Walter Johnson campus as second and third choices, respectively.
Park officials are not alone in oppositing the choice of Cabin John and Wall Park. Neighbors near each location are worried about increased traffic if the pool is built nearby. And the city of Rockville opposes both sites for fear that the new pool would drain business from Rockville's municipal indoor pool.
On the other side, recreational leaders, coaches and countless swimmers are hoping hearing officer McArthur will recommend Cabin John and that the county attorney will rule that the planning board cannot block use of the park.
"It's important to nail down that site and build that pool," said Edward Gannon.