- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has sided with citizens’ groups against a Montgomery County project to transform a 20-acre organic farm in a Potomac neighborhood into soccer fields, but county officials say they plan to go forward with the project anyway.

“I believe we are about to make a big mistake in destroying acres of a productive organic farmland and its soils which could be a priceless asset to the education, health, and well-being of generations of Montgomery students,” Mr. O'Malley wrote in a letter to Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Montgomery County Board of Education President Shirley Brandman.

Local citizens groups who call themselves the Brickyard Coalition — including the River Falls civic group, the West Montgomery County Citizens’ Association and the Brickyard Citizens’ Association — have been fighting the planned soccer field construction project since last year. For decades the organic farm operating on land leased from the school district has been a good, quiet neighbor, coalition members said. Last year, news broke that the land was going to be leased to the county and MSI Soccer, a nonprofit organization in Montgomery County, would be building soccer fields there.

Donna Bigler, spokeswoman for the county, said there was no plan to send a response to the governor.

“Everything in that letter has been considered,” Ms. Bigler said. “The MSI proposal includes several acres for an educational center in addition to the two soccer fields.”

Ms. Bigler said the county has already extended the license for the property — it expires Wednesday — and offered farmer Nick Maravell alternate property, which he has yet to accept.

The board of education did not return a call seeking comment.

Coalition members have appealed the Montgomery County Board of Education’s decision to lease the land for the soccer fields. After hearing evidence, the Maryland State Board of Education sided with the school board, ruling that members could lease the land for soccer fields. Coalition members appealed that decision to court, where a judge Tuesday placed a hold on the board of education’s decision to lease the land until the case is resolved.

Brickyard Coalition members have filed a lawsuit against the county, which they say has refused to disclose public records dealing with the decision to use the land for soccer fields.

The community groups have demanded public records as far back as November 2009 to show the negotiations among the county, the Board of Education and MSI Soccer.

At a court hearing last month, a Montgomery County judge upheld the public information request from the coalition, which had been stonewalled in its efforts to uncover details about a the project.

On Tuesday, a judge set a series of deadlines between Aug. 20 and Sept. 25 during which the county must produce documents and status updates.

Keith Williams, president of the Civic Association of River Falls, said the day’s proceedings “went as well as we could expect” and thought it was “absolutely a good thing” the judge put a hold on the lease.

Mr. Williams said the coalition is also “thrilled” about the letter from the governor, calling it “good news.”

“We’re excited to see the governor sees the farm for what it is,” he said, adding that the county would “basically be putting a finger in the eye of the governor” if it chose to ignore Mr. O'Malley’s letter.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, did not comment on the merits of the litigation. Instead, he focused on the policy decision to replace the organic farm with soccer fields. The organic farm helps to teach children about how food is grown, produces fruits and vegetables for school lunches, and offers field trips and educational programs, Mr. O'Malley wrote.

“We need more assets like Mr. Maravell’s farm, rather than fewer,” Mr. O'Malley wrote.