Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) took Prince George's County political leaders on a bus tour of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center last Friday as part of his continuing effort to draw attention to the federal government's plan to sell part of what he called "an indispensable national asset."
Research center director Paul A. Putnam told Hoyer and the more than a dozen local officials that the Reagan administration ordered "those parcels least damaging" to the work of the center offered for public sale as part of its effort to slow rising federal budget deficits.
Two parcels were selected: 13 acres along Rte. 1 and 247 acres on the northern edge of the center that is being used for insect research.
Speaking to the crowd from the front of the pitching, rain-pelted bus as it wound its way along narrow roads in need of repair, Putnam said the sale of the larger tract could infringe on pesticide and chemical research projects on adjacent land. Sale of the smaller parcel, he said, would jeopardize a proposed strawberry research program that can't be conducted anywhere else at the center.
Putnam said the most invaluable assets at the center are 70-year-old soil records on the uses and chemicals applied to each foot of soil. The bus drove past research marijuana fields and the largest orchard of "tissue-cultured trees"--literally grown in test tubes--in the world. The group visited a horn-faced bee farm and an animal research center.
Among those braving the weather were Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, County Council chairman Frank Casula, state Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's) and a number of state delegates and town officials.
"I live in Beltsville and I'm proud to have the research center as a neighbor," Dorman said. "It's provided stable employment for 2,200 people for years."
Casula said if the federal government persists in trying to determine if the research center should be moved, the county could make it "very, very difficult for anything other than open space" zoning of the property.
Glendening said if the land is sold, the gain from property taxes wouldn't offset the loss to the "overall quality of life in the community."
Hoyer said sales plans by the General Services Administration were put on hold only after political pressure. GSA is the agent for the land sales, relying on federal agencies, such as the Agriculture Department, to turn over unneeded properties for sale.
But disposal of the larger tract was snagged because the Agriculture Department failed to do an archaeological survey before turning the property over to GSA for disposal. Putnam said he has just ordered the $10,000, six-month study.
During the tour, Putnam said there are few significant archaeological remains at the research center with the exception of "some arrowheads here and there . . . a 200-year-old house and a colonial iron pit." The house and the pit are not within the 247-acre tract.
Meanwhile, the State Department of Transportation plans to decide by June if a planned inter-county connector highway route should be shifted southward so that it cuts through the 247-acre tract. In addition, the state agency's Maryland Aviation System Plan has identified the research center as a possible site for a public airport.
Not willing to take any chances, Hoyer said he will try to form a bipartisan coalition of members of Congress who have properties in their districts that shouldn't be sold under the U.S. sales program.
"What else can you expect?" asked Earl E. Jones, GSA's property disposal chief. "It's a way to slow down things."
Jones emphasized that most of GSA's tracts are urban parcels, not "environmental lands" under the Interior Department's jurisdiction.
GSA officials had planned a survey of the entire research facility yesterday to determine if it is being fully utilized but apparently postponed it until June 15 at the request of the White House Property Review Board.
Charged with pressing federal agencies to turn over land to GSA for disposal, the board's staff planned to meet with Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) this week to try to convince him of the need to sell portions of the Beltsville center.
"If it is well utilized, we're certainly not going to recommend selling it," Jones said. "But we have to conduct the survey and see."