Bending to the objections of the National Capital Planning Commission and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the General Services Administration abruptly decided this week that it would try to keep a potentially valuable tract of property along Route 1 in Beltsville as parkland rather than selling it to the highest bidder.
"We are trying to avoid political controversy," said Earl E. Jones, commissioner of GSA's Federal Property Resources Service. "This is a good compromise."
The agency had been planning to sell the site for the best price it could get.
"It is our job to sell properties that are not needed by federal agencies," said Jerald D. Fox, a senior aide to acting GSA administrator Dwight A. Ink.
GSA has tried before to sell the controversial 3.3-acre tract -- known officially as part of Parcel 5 -- but pulled back after congressional opposition.
The NCPC, in a report this month, agreed that GSA should be allowed to sell two other properties: an adjacent 9.6-acre tract that is also part of Parcel 5 that fronts on Sunnyside and Rhode Island avenues and a 5.6-acre parcel that used to be part of the Research Center along the Capital Beltway.
GSA officials say that all three parcels are not needed by the Agriculture Department or by any other federal agency.
Jones said that if the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, the state or another governmental unit asks for the right to obtain the 3.3 acres in Parcel 5 and maintain it as a park, then "we would look favorably on that."
Meanwhile, GSA has one interested buyer: the University of Maryland Research Farm, also located in the Beltsville area. But the university wants the property so it could construct a three- to four-story biotechnical research building -- a project that Agriculture Department officials contend "should not be incompatible" with surrounding uses.
Jones, however, is skeptical "since the locals want it open space."
In its April 4 report, the NCPC told GSA that Parcel 5 "should not be reported excess or surplus and should be retained by the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center to ensure that the character and integrity of the setting of the existing National Agricultural Library on the east side of Route 1 and the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center headquarters complex on the west side of Route 1 are respected and protected."
Hoyer, in a March 29 letter to the NCPC, repeated his past view. "I am still favoring retention of the land as open space and hope the commission supports this position," Hoyer said, adding that he would introduce legislation prohibiting the disposal of the property.
The NCPC, in its report, said the proposed sale "does raise some issues of concern" because the research center's master plan designates the tract as the site for turf research and for a future government-owned office building.
The research center, however, has determined that the office building might never be built and that the turf research could be done elsewhere. In the past, Agriculture Department experts said that the 50-year history of turf experiments in the same location has produced important scientific discoveries that would be lost if the work were transferred to another site on the sprawling research center.
The NCPC believes that the library should have its vista "protected and not diminished by any future undesirable land use or development on the site."
Jones has decided to give the local park-owning agencies a shot at acquiring the parcel.
"But if no one comes forward, we still could end up selling it," Jones said.
Jack Finberg, GSA's alternate representative on the NCPC, said he was "surprised" that GSA regional officials responsible for selling the property tried to push it through over the objections of the local congressman. GSA's Atlanta office is responsible for selling the land.
"We're just shooting ourselves in the foot if we try to do that too often," Finberg said.