BY ED LEVY — The annual Rachel Carson Meadow Festival in Silver Spring’s North Four Corners Park (N4CP) is a great example of how a community can use and enjoy its local park. People relax on the grassy meadow watching live performances by the Washington Revels. Others participate with their dogs in contests to judge best trick and dog/owner look-alike contests. Still others work to make wreaths and crowns from the park’s invasive vines, throw footballs, and/or picnic. To this area resident, the park serves our racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood well and seems to be exactly what a local park should be.
The Montgomery County Department of Parks has other ideas, however. It plans to spend nearly $6 million over the next five years to replace the existing meadow with a soccer field, replace the existing soccer field with a newly planted natural area, and make parking and other modifications. The Parks Department will spend $119,000 to plan the facilities in FY 2012 with the bulk of the project money to be spent on construction in the out years. At the same time, the Parks Department recently closed the Park’s community center building in an effort to reduce the building’s estimated $20,000 annual operating costs.
Montgomery County Councilmember Mark Elrich (D-At Large) is a member of the Council’s Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee with jurisdiction over county parks. Elrich voted to remove the N4CP proposal from the county’s Capital Improvements Program and believes that the meadow area of the park has “evolved very nicely and should stay a park.” Elrich also said that the Parks Department proposal represents a significant cost to the county requiring major earth movement when there is already a soccer field in place. He added that he “prefers that the county make modifications based on the existing park layout.” Elrich indicated that he will continue to fight this proposal and that “the county can use the funds for better things.”
Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-4th District) represents the area where the park is located. In a statement, she said that “While I recognize the importance of providing open space and amenities like athletic fields for our community, I continue to have strong reservations about this project.
Moving forward, I hope the Department of Parks and Planning will take this community’s very real concerns into consideration and find ways to mitigate the potentially negative impact of this project.”
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett has also recommended against funding this project.
The original 7.9 acre section of the North Four Corners Park was developed in the 1950s. It contains the community center building, a soccer field, a small parking lot, playground, two tennis courts, one basketball court and some mature tree cover. In 1998, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission spent $1.25 million to purchase the adjacent six-acre meadow area, which was formerly the site of a private school.
Currently, the newer park section contains the meadow and mature trees, including a 180-year-old black walnut tree.
Proposed park modifications would construct a rectangular soccer field in the new park section with an adjacent 50-space parking lot entered from University Boulevard. This section of the park has a 35-foot change of elevation, which will require a large amount of fill dirt to create a level playing surface.
In the original park section, the existing soccer field would be removed and replaced with an open landscaped space, accessible paths, paved seating areas, and a playground. The Parks Department’s website adds that “There are numerous acres of stream valley and natural resource parkland within very close proximity of this park available for residents who would enjoy an experience with nature (i.e. you won’t find it at this park once the renovations are done).
Montgomery County Parks Director Mary Bradford, a Silver Spring resident, explained to me that the proposed park modifications will include direct access to the soccer field from University Boulevard, thus reducing park-related traffic in the surrounding neighborhood. She further emphasized that $5 million of the project cost will come from County bonds rather than taxes (although I note that County taxpayers will still be responsible for paying back these borrowed funds). In addition, Bradford stated that bond proceeds are limited to new capital projects rather than operating costs of existing facilities (although if the County can’t afford to maintain existing facilities, I still question the wisdom of building expensive new ones). Bradford also noted that N4CP is a “local park” intended to serve more than the immediate neighborhood.
Despite significant neighborhood opposition, the County Council staff’s recommendation to pursue the Parks Department plan in 2008 included a warning that “Staff strongly believes that a decision not to place a multi-use field in this local park would set a dangerous precedent and lead to future requests for active recreational areas to be changed to passive uses to minimize impacts on adjacent communities.”
Neighborhood activists Jim Zepp and Carole Barth and an overwhelming percentage of other residents have been opposing this proposal for nine years. For example, Four Corners resident Roxanne Mirabal Beltran wrote in 2007 that the proposal was opposed “by our community and those familiar with the park and its issues; by environmentalists who realize that our communities are in a crisis; by activists, who feel that bulldozing not only a meadow and its trees but a community’s solid input … is unacceptable; (and) by those concerned about our state and county politics and their fiscal responsibility.”
Zepp and Barth emphasize that there will be no net gain in ball field facilities, and that the County could renovate 11 existing poorly maintained fields using the $5 million plus earmarked for this project. They also state that the Parks Department is ignoring the findings of its own Park User Survey, which found that park users valued the need for natural park areas over organized sports facilities. Further, they note that the current plan would destroy a natural area in a part of the county with limited green recreational resources.
Neighborhood residents have proposed an alternative site proposal for the Park, which could be accomplished at a significantly lower price. It would eliminate the new soccer field and improve the existing field, reduce the width of the walking trail from 10 to 5 feet to encourage foot rather than bike/roller blade traffic, keep the new parking lot design but cut the number of spaces to 20, add a kids’ nature trail, and keep the open grassy hilltop near the venerable black walnut tree.
The Park’s log and stone community center was one of 11 closed on June 30, 2010, in a cost-cutting effort. The Parks Department claimed that it could save $175,000 by closing 11 of its 30 centers countywide for three months despite the fact that rental revenues would be lost for this period and the Department would have to continue to maintain the closed centers.
Jim Zepp contends that underutilization of the local center was due in part to the lack of marketing of the buildings’ availability, difficulties in using the rental reservations process, and inflexible rental schedule (four-hour fixed blocks that required separate security deposits if an event spanned two time blocks). Zepp questions the Parks Department statement that it takes 40 person-years to staff its community centers. He notes that there are no staff onsite and the buildings are not maintained by Parks staff, and that after closing the 11 centers, the Parks Department only planned to reduce its staffing level for its centers by one person-year.
Rather than reopen the centers, the Parks Department on August 19, 2011, issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) from private entities or individuals to rent seven of the centers — including the Northwood Four Corners center. The REOI states that the N4CP facility was built in 1956 and has 2,030 square feet with 14 parking spaces. The center also has a refrigerator and warming oven, and is air-conditioned. Expressions of interest are due by September 9, 2011.
In conclusion, the Parks Department’s proposal is flawed, requiring a large amount of funds that could be better spent on lesser modifications to the Northwood Four Corners Park and on other high- priority park projects. Neighborhood activists Carole Barth and Jim Zepp echo Councilmember Mark Elrich’s belief that it is not too late to change the proposal so that the local park can better serve the surrounding community and the county as a whole.