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FOI Request Illuminates Early County Plans

Council prepares legislation to reduce Executive’s power; citizens prepare for $40 million lawsuit.

The County Council introduced emergency legislation Tuesday, March 13 that would require the Council to approve any sale or lease of County property before it becomes final.

“The purpose of this requirement is to avoid a situation where [a County] Executive gains approval to dispose of a property and then modifies the term in a way that … might not be in the County’s best interest,” according to Michael Faden, the Council’s senior legislative attorney.

Five days before, the Brickyard Coalition — with more than 400 members and civic organizations — filed legal notice with the Montgomery State Treasurer of a possible $40 million monetary claim against the Montgomery County Board of Education for leasing the Brickyard Road property to the county. The notice is required if citizens want to sue and seek monetary damages from the school board or any officials.

Both actions were filed the week of the one-year anniversary of the Board of Education’s vote on March 8, 2011 to lease the 20-acre property to Montgomery County.

County Executive Ike Leggett wants to rent the land to Montgomery Soccer Incorporated or another soccer club to construct soccer fields on the property that has been leased to Nick Maravell to operate an organic farm there the last 30 years.

“They really do have a concern that we haven’t notified the community yet. I think they believe the outcry will be so overwhelming that we won’t proceed.”

County officials’ e-mail obtained under Freedom of Information Act

“The hundreds of members of the Brickyard Coalition are hopeful that this legislation will assist in opening up the County process so that we can have an honest and open discussion of the best use of the Brickyard public land site,” said Curt Uhre. “And we thank our Councilmember, Roger Berliner, and the other five Councilmembers who sponsored this legislation.”

TUESDAY’S EXPEDITED BILL would modify the procedures for disposition of county property and would require the Council to approve disposition of certain properties.

“Specifically, Bill 11-12 would modify County Code by: tightening up the current property disposition process (which includes an opportunity for Council comments but not approval) so as to preclude the broad exemptions found in current County regulations.”

Currently, Council legal staff and the County Attorney disagree over the Council’s ability to approve terms of land disposition, according to council documents.

The bill, sponsored by six of the nine members of County Council, including Council President Roger Berliner, who represents Potomac, along with George Leventhal, Marc Elrich, Phil Andrews, Hans Riemer and Nancy Navarro, would take effect on the very day it becomes law.

“The Council declares that this legislation is necessary for the immediate protection of the public interest,” according to the bill.

A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for March 20.

THE BRICKYARD COALITION formed in response to the surprise notice last spring that the Board of Education would terminate the lease of organic farmer Nick Maravell in order to lease the Brickyard site to the county for private soccer fields. The public learned of the action just days before the vote.

The County Executive had already decided to turn the land over to a private soccer organization and county officials had been discussing the proposal with Montgomery Soccer Inc. and the school officials for at least two years.

The Brickyard Coalition is an umbrella organization of civic groups and residents and includes the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, the Civic Association of River Falls and the Brickyard Road Citizens’ Association.

The Brickyard Coalition filed requests for documents, including email correspondence between county and school officials, under the Freedom of Information Act, and learned that the County Executive had been planning for years to deliver the 20 acres of public land to a “private corporation” for development.

The FOIA request illuminated the County Executive’s hastening to get the item on the School Board’s agenda last March 8, 2011 even though the School Board voiced reservations.

“This is a huge priority for the Executive. I know your staff is stretched very thin but I need to ask that you help push this particular issue forward so it can be before the School Board on the 8th,” according to County Executive staff emails dated Feb. 18, 2011.

One email between county officials obtained said that the School Board would be unlikely to sign a lease “until there has been some kind of public notice process of our intent to do this project. They’re concerned about public reaction and don’t want to be caught in the middle.”

But 11 days later, another email stated the school board apologized for time lapsed between communications. “They really do have a concern that we haven’t notified the community yet. I think they believe the outcry will be so overwhelming that we won’t proceed.”

More than 400 individuals and civic associations filed the notice with the Maryland State Treasurer. Each claimant could potentially receive up to $100,000, according to the Brickyard Coalition.

“If this is permitted to happen, it will set a terrible precedent and no community within Montgomery County will be safe from such schemes, secret planning and private developments on public land,” said Uhre.