A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge yesterday cleared the way for the county to purchase a riding stable for $1.1 million, after rejecting the arguments of a taxpayers group suing to block the county's controversial new aquisition.
In dismissing the suit brought by the Montgomery County Taxpayers' League, Judge John J. Mitchell said that the group failed to prove that the purchase of the 48-acre stable complex had actually cost taxpayers any additional money.
Mitchell also said that the taxpayers' group did not prove its charge that the County Council acted illegally last May by adding the stable purchase to the county's capital improvements budget without holding a separate public hearing.
The move to buy the financially ailing stable was intended to save its vast open space of trails, barns, and riding rings for horse lovers in an area teeming with development. But the idea met with considerable resistance from some county officials and community residents who thought that buying an expensive equestrian facility at a time of budget cuts and school closings would only reinforce the widespread image of the affluent county as elitist.
The horse stable purchase was vetoed by County Executive Charles Gilchrist, who earlier this year pledged to hold the line on tax increases by proposing reduced library hours and eliminating some county jobs through attrition. The council overturned that veto in mid-June, but as a bow to the charge of elitism specified that 48 units of moderate-income housing be built on a portion of the stable site.
Wylie Barrow, head of the taxpayers' league that tried to block the sale, said "We regret that the court's decision did not touch on the legality of the County Council's adding new items to the capital improvements budget without public hearings." He said his group is considering an appeal.
Aside from the legal issue, Barrow said, "We thought the horse center itself was an unnecessary expenditure of public funds. There was no great public clamoring for it. It would only be used by a relatively few people."
Barrow also pointed out that the stable's present owner, Frederick G. (Stretch) Harting, was unable to make ends meet. "If private enterprise couldn't make a profit on it, how will the government?" Barrow said.
Under the arrangement for the purchase, the county will buy the site for $1.1 million, which is reportedly much less than the appraised value of the property. The county will then lease the stable back to Harting, who will run the farm as he has for the last 20 years.
County spokesman Charlie Maier said after the ruling that Gilchrist would have no comment. He added that the promise to build 48 housing units "shows sort of mixed priorities here."
Purchase of the facility is already underway, although a settlement has not yet been reached, Maier said. Of the fallout of the purchase, in a county almost as image-conscious as it is affluent, Maier said, "It sort of got out of hand. We got a lot of flak for it."
Because of zoning regulations, sewer lines, and other building restrictions, observers say that the 48 units cannot be built for two years at the earliest.