Until this week, the biggest hindrance to the Gabrelcik property, a four-acre site in Lexington Park being considered for a new St. Mary's County library, was that the county would have to buy it.
But at a public forum Tuesday on the two final sites under consideration for a new Lexington Park library, the county commissioners dropped a surprise: Robert F. Gabrelcik, the local developer who owns the Gabrelcik property off South Shangri-La Drive, has offered to donate the property, which has an appraised value of $325,000. The only cost to the county would be $65,000 to buy a one-acre right of way that would provide access to the 4.1-acre site.
But many library advocates, speaking during the public forum, were unconvinced that the Gabrelcik property, across the street from Lexington Park Elementary School, would be a better choice than Nicolet Park, just one-half mile away, off Route 235 across the street from Millison Plaza.
"I still say let's go with what the the public is saying. Let's put the library where they want it, and that's at Nicolet Park," said Mary Anne Chasen, a member of the Library Board of Trustees.
Chasen and other advocates of the Nicolet Park site say that two county surveys of residents showed that they overwhelmingly prefer the county-owned site for a new Lexington Park library.
The existing library, built in the 1970s, has outgrown its one-story building near the gate of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Because of record population growth in St. Mary's County, the library has become the busiest and most-used library in the county, with more than 25,000 registered borrowers. It is also the smallest of the three county libraries.
But expansion on the existing site was ruled out because of the county's "no-fly" rules that essentially prevent building near the naval base. In May, the county commissioners approved $3.5 million for the new library, then began discussions for a new site.
Citing the lyrics from the Broadway musical "1776"--"Is anybody there? Does anybody care?"--library trustee Barbara Conrath told the commissioners that it's time they listen to residents.
"The citizens of St. Mary's county have sent repeated messages to the county how they favor the Nicolet Park location," Conrath said.
In acreage, both sites are about the same. The Nicolet Park site is a five-acre site with a movie house and shopping center across the street and a wooded area on another side. Advocates for the site say that Nicolet Park offers more room for future growth, and that the Gabrelcik property has little room for expansion.
"These are two delicious choices," said Clare Whitbeck, a resident who favored Nicolet Park.
On a recent walk through the park, Whitbeck said, she was struck by the woods, and imagined a library with big windows overlooking them.
"It's such a beautiful place, and it would make a beautiful site for the library," Whitbeck said.
Some county officials and residents have argued that a library at the Gabrelcik property is consistent with the county's revitalization plans for downtown Lexington Park, and it could serve as a catalyst to future development.
But at least one resident who favored the Nicolet Park site, Tabitha Powledge, rejected the development argument. Powledge is the wife of Fred Powledge, chairman of the Library Board of Trustees, who also favors the Nicolet Park site.
"I'm urging you not to use the library as an opening wedge for development," she implored the county commissioners. "I think you need to think about the needs of the library."
Robert Lewis, a member of the library task force, an advisory group that examined the Lexington Park Library expansion, said he favored the Gabrelcik property for developmental reason.
"This is an integral stepping stone in that direction [of revitalizing Lexington Park]," said Tom Watts, a Lexington Park resident who also favored the Gabrelcik property.
Alfreda Mathis, a member of the library task force, said she favors the Gabrelcik property because it is closer to a school, and would allow many more children to walk to the library and use it. She disputed Tabitha Powledge's suggestion that the site is being considered strictly for its impact on future development.
"I had no agenda," Mathis said. "I say the library is for the children."
At the conclusion of the public forum, County Commissioner Julie B. Randall (D-At Large), acknowledged the difficulty of the decision but cautioned her colleagues: "With two choices like these, we can't screw it up," she said.
The commissioners will continue to accept written or telephone comments on the two sites through Monday. They will decide at next week's board meeting, Randall said.