Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Park and Planning Lobbies District 4 Candidates

In an unprecedented move, officials inside the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) have begun lobbying District 4 candidates on behalf of their priorities. One of those priorities concerns one of the district’s most controversial issues: the plan to add a soccer field at North Four Corners Local Park.

Multiple campaigns confirm being contacted by Joyce P. Coleman, a special assistant to the Planning Board. Coleman has attempted to arrange “briefings” with some candidates and has sent them budgetary information on several projects including the East Norbeck Local Park Expansion, the Rock Creek Trail Pedestrian Bridge, the Woodlawn Barn Visitors Center, the soccer field at North Four Corners and Ballfield Initiatives around the county. We hear that at least one candidate received a personal briefing on these issues from Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson. By far the most contentious of these projects involves North Four Corners, the site of a raging dispute between M-NCPPC and the Northwood-Four Corners Civic Association.

In 2003, Park and Planning began advocating for the installation of a soccer field at the tree-filled North Four Corners Local Park, a 14-acre bit of green space just north of the horrendous University Boulevard-US 29 intersection. The community mobilized against the project and gathered 26 letters and 650 petition signatures against it by February 2008. That same month, bulldozers showed up at the park to take down trees, provoking an uprising in the neighborhood. Park and Planning said the work was intended to remove “invasive species.” The civic association held a District 4 debate in April and made their case to all the candidates who came. Steve Kanstoroom, a long-time anti-M-NCPPC activist, won the precinct but Don Praisner, the winner, did not attend the debate and made no promises on the issue.

By May 2008, the County Council had agreed to add the soccer project to the county’s capital plan. But spending for planning is scheduled to start in FY 12 and actual construction is scheduled for FY 14, so the community still has a hypothetical chance of getting it deleted. In any case, the issue still radiates in the neighborhood like a leaky tank of plutonium. And the civic association scheduled a debate for April 8, 2009 at which the park would surely be raised.

That caused Park and Planning to spring into action and start calling District 4 candidates. Here are the two documents they sent the candidates about North Four Corners Local Park:

Note how the first document, a “background memo” prepared for the candidates, says this:

Contrary to wishes of the local community, but based on long-term unmet needs for athletic fields in the “down-county” area, park staff included one additional full-sized rectangular athletic field in the approved facility plan.
The timing of the information delivery and the language of the memo lay bare the intent of M-NCPPC. Park and Planning was lobbying the candidates to agree with its position on the park prior to their hearing from the neighbors. Clearly, Park and Planning did not want the candidates to make promises to the residents about stopping the soccer field that they would feel compelled to honor later on. M-NCPPC is certainly entitled to communicate its positions to the County Executive and the County Council, but this is its first attempt that we can recall to influence the positions of candidates even before they are elected.

This episode will surely feed the cynicism held by civic activists of Park and Planning and county government in general. M-NCPPC owes the residents an immediate apology and a promise to never do this again.