Little could take away from the excitement at the black-tie opening night gala at the Music Center at Strathmore Feb. 5. But for County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) and others among the locally savvy crowd, there was a concern that put a damper on the festivities.
Word had gotten out that the American Speech and Hearing Association, long-time owners of the property abutting Strathmore was leaving and a Texas company was moving in with development plans for the next-door site, leaving in doubt the future of a section of ASHA property frequently used for outdoor Strathmore events.
“There was a lot of buzzing around – ‘what’s going on with this piece of property?’” Denis said. “No one thought [ASHA] would ever move. Well, lo and behold, they sold it, and there was no outreach to the community or anyone else. It was kind of shocking.”
The next week, Denis and Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) introduced a council measure that moved to protect the 10-acre parcel of land as open space of community importance. The proposed mechanism: a referral to the four-year-old Legacy Open Space program a nationally-recognized county initiative to protect the most important remaining parcels of open space in the rapidly developing county.
The council unanimously adopted Denis' measure March 22, directing the Montgomery County Planning Board to closely examine the site for inclusion in Legacy Open Space.
“Without the Legacy Open Space Master Plan … there really would be no way to keep this from being developed,” Denis said.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Legacy Open Space was touted as a 10-year, $100 million program to preserve ecologically and historically significant land in six categories: natural resources, water supply protection, heritage resources, greenway connections, farmland and rural open spaces, and urban open space. In July, 2001, the Council approved an 87-page Functional Master Plan that laid a framework for site identification and acquisition under the program.
To date, the program has preserved from development 2,280 acres of county land, through both in-fee acquisitions and easements. In addition to $23 million of county money, more than $12 million from the state and nearly $2 million in private and municipal donations have gone to protecting at least 18 distinct sites.
The master plan identified dozens of sites in three classes. The classes — distinct from the resource categories — deal with the technicalities of acquiring the sites. Class I sites are ones identified in the master plan for acquisition which the county can, as a last resort, put into reservation and withhold from development review for up to three years. Class II sites are standard Legacy Open Space Master Plan sites which the county may, as a last resort, condemn and buy outright but may not put into reservation. Class III sites are those identified as “maybes,” which need further review before possibly being moved into Class I or Class II.
Sites not identified in the 2001 master plan may still move in to the program. Sites recommended by the Legacy Open Space Advisory Board or the community are vetted by Legacy Open Space staff for appropriateness and must be approved by the Planning Board, and in the case of Class I sites, the County Council.
“We’ve had some major successes,” said Brenda Sandberg, Legacy Open Space program manager. “I look back over the last four years and go, ‘Wow, we’ve really protected four or five of our top resource priorities.’”
Among those was a major site in Potomac—the Serpentine Barrens to the west of Piney Meetinghouse Road north of Glen Road. Legacy Open Space protected a 258-acre tract of the rare forest growing from serpentine rock and a 65-acre “South Serpentine” parcel. The protected land is home to over 20 threatened and endangered species.
Another Potomac site, the Cahoon property near the corner of Glen Road and Glen Mill Road was initially marked as a Class III “maybe” site, but moved into the active master plan last year.
"Some important lands have been purchased in the Potomac subregion," said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society."
Looking ahead, Sandberg said that she hopes to zero in on two of the categories for which the program has so far had little success in acquiring properties — rural open spaces and greenway connections. “It just hasn’t gelled there,” she said.
Potomac resident Ginny Barnes, who sits on the Legacy Open Space Advisory Committee agreed. “We need to start concentrating on some of these other ideas. We've got a lot of the big pieces ... [but] we need to start thinking creatively about how to implement the rest of the Legacy vision," including things like urban parks and boulevards and, perhaps, the land next to Strathmore, Barnes said.
Land acquisition is a tricky business and much of Legacy’s work hinges on the attitudes, and sometimes the whims, of landowners. But Sandberg and Denis both said that rethinking Legacy’s financial approach is important to the future of the program as well.
The county contribution to the program was always intended to be seed money, meant to be leveraged to draw in state and federal grant money, money from foundations and environmental organizations, and private donations.
The program has had mixed success in doing that.
Fitzpatrick said that he sees the county money as an essential piece of the program, especially since "the Maryland governor and General Assembly have on occasion taken the funds that were normally set aside for open space protection … and used it for purposes other than protecting open space."
The County Council that adopted the program recognized that the existing mechanisms were insufficient and budgeted county money to protect open space. "This wasn’t just the county’s responsibility, it was for the county to take an active role," Fitzpatrick said. "I think they need to redouble their efforts" to draw in outside funds "because there are some important needs that are going unmet."
State funding sources were initially abundant but have essentially dried up, Sandberg said. Legacy has carried out one major successful municipal partnership, in which the residents of Chevy Chase Village voluntarily raised taxes on themselves in order to provide $1.25 million for the acquisition of the Wolfarth Property abutting it. The lone outright private donation of land to the program was valued at $400,000.
“We’d like to get more private funds, actual donations of land and donations of money to support the program than we have,” Sandberg said.
“If you purchased all these properties your bank account would be exhausted pretty soon,” Denis said. “So you can do it with easements or donations or in this case with Strathmore, maybe just by raising the point forcefully.”
At least that’s the hope.
“If you purchased it you’d be talking about $10 million,” Denis said. “But it could be donated by the people who own it now, just to be a good corporate citizen or maybe they want to do something else elsewhere.”
Legacy staff is at work examining the Strathmore property, which Sandberg said could only plausibly fit into the urban open space category, but is undoubtedly important as a community resource..
Whatever happens at Strathmore, the Legacy program remains funded through 2010 in the county’s Capital Improvements Plan, and is viewed — by those who know it — as a success.
"The success of legacy needs to be touted in the county. It's known in the other parts of the nation, but it's not known among the people that live here," Barnes said. "When my days as an activist are over, this is one of the things I’m going to be most proud of."
“I think it’s been very successful, spectacularly successful. I mean it was a dream for a long time, and it was considered in its initial roll out to be not only ambitious but some said overly ambitious,” Denis said. “It’s at the point now where it’s almost, ‘Where would we be without it?’”