The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has withdrawn an application to change the zoning of its property in Hughesville that encompasses the site for the proposed minor league baseball stadium.
Last year, SMECO applied to rezone the 146 acres from a largely agricultural preservation status to a "planned employment park" designation. The zoning change, on land along Route 5 north of Route 231, would have accommodated plans for a new utility service center for SMECO, a regional cancer treatment center and the proposed $18 million minor league ballpark. But SMECO officials said they decided to postpone their project.
"Our plans to construct a facility are somewhat indefinite, three to five years out," said SMECO spokeswoman Ann Knott. "We will revisit this application when our plans become firmer."
Opponents of the 4,500-seat minor league baseball stadium, who say they want to protect the rural character of Hughesville, were pleased with SMECO's decision.
"It is a big plus for us because the whole area won't be rezoned. Because once it's rezoned, everything could be developed in a flash," said Donna Cave, the president of Preserve Hughesville, a citizens group of more than 300 people that is fighting the stadium proposal.
But Charles County officials said the application withdrawal is not an impediment to either the stadium or the oncology center.
SMECO had backed off its initial plans to donate land for the stadium but is considering selling 40 acres to the county at market rate. No deal had been reached as of Tuesday afternoon. If the county buys the land, then no rezoning would be necessary to build the stadium because the county is exempt from those zoning requirements, said Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains). He said the proposed oncology center could be built on a portion of SMECO's land that is zoned for industrial uses.
The county has paid $60,000 to study whether the Hughesville site can accommodate the water and sewer needs of a baseball stadium, he said. Some officials discussed the possibility of considering other sites because of the infrastructure questions and the strong local opposition.
"If the study comes back and says there are too many challenges in Hughesville, with wetlands or water and sewer, I think we need to take a look at other places," said Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata). "Am I wedded to this site in Hughesville? The answer is no. Do I want the baseball stadium in Charles County? Absolutely."
Mayer said one alternative, which he had not discussed with other commissioners, was near Billingsley Road and Route 5, a few miles north of Hughesville. The site would be within reach of Calvert and St. Mary's counties but not too far north to encroach on the Bowie Baysox fan base, he said.
"But this is just all in [my] mind right now, we haven't even discussed it yet," he said of his suggestion.
Peter Kirk, the chairman of Maryland Baseball LLC, the private partner in the stadium project, said choosing a site is "always a local decision."
"We'll obviously want to be sure that the site has good access," he said. "But the local folks know their area better than we would. . . . I'm sure there are many other locations that would work well in Southern Maryland."
The county and Maryland Baseball have each committed $6 million for the project. They are asking the state to contribute an additional $6 million over the next two years. Some members of Southern Maryland's state legislative delegation said they will not pass judgment on the project until the county finalizes its plan.
"I suspect that what's been proposed may not be the final form that comes to us," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's). "They may still be able to find a good site. No sense dowsing the thing and having a good idea go down the drains because of the first site they proposed."