ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Council discussed budgeting and maintenance issues for local parks in the coming years in their March 12 session.
In 2018, the council approved a Capital Improvements Plan for the next six years with a budget of $220 million. The budget and projects it funds are the responsibility of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). This year, in an effort to reduce expenses for the county as a whole, M-NCPPC set forth recommendations that would save money and make cuts to its spending.
“We were grappling with the need to reduce the expenditures in this budget and overall we did not recommend changes that would undo the savings that had been proposed,” said Montgomery County Parks Director Mike Riley. “It certainly would have been more fun to reject all the cuts and continue to fund everything we have planned.”
But the organization was aware of making funding available for other priorities within the capital budget like transportation and school funding.
“We felt that the cuts that had been non-recommended from the Planning Commission were cuts that were acceptable given the need to fund other priorities as well,” Riley said.
He explained that one of the areas the commission could not cut is having funding for high quality playing surfaces and natural, well-maintained grass.
Maintaining natural grass takes a lot of management, Riley said. There is expensive equipment, careful planning on school sites and rotating access for kids to be able to play.
The Parks Department also recommended keeping funding intact for Josiah Henson Historic Park, Brookside Gardens and maintaining the timeline for the master plan for Little Bennett Regional Park Trail connector and a day-use area. Although the department recommended maintaining multiple projects, it also recommended delaying one as well.
“We felt that for the Ovid Hazen Wells Recreation Park, we would reluctantly concur with the Planning Commission to delay that project further,” Riley said.
Ovid Hazen Wells Park is a 290-acre recreational park in Clarksburg. It was included in a 2014 master plan for redevelopment that included building an amphitheater, skate park and renovating the playground according to Councilmember Craig Rice. But those plans were delayed in 2016 by former County Executive Isiah Leggett.
The park was then slated for development in 2024, but at the county council session, there was a push to delay development in the park again, until 2026. The council entertained the idea of delaying the project further so that funds could go towards accelerating the Brookside Gardens project.
The possibility of delaying the project again was met with resistance from Rice who felt that the council would be breaking a promise to the city of Clarksburg.
“That wasn’t acceptable in my eyes in terms of how long these communities waited for amenities such as an amphitheater, playground, skate park and carousel,” Rice said. “These things will certainly be great improvements for the Clarksburg community.”
Rice explained how important it is for councilmembers to keep their word with their constituents.
“I think we continue playing the same game over and over again about promising our Clarksburg community what we’re going to deliver to them in terms of a fully completed park and then taking it away,” Rice said. “I feel as though Clarksburg is Charlie Brown when it comes to this park.”
Clarksburg has grown considerably in the last 20 years and its growth is projected to continue, according to Rice.
In addition, young families and people who bought properties in Clarksburg were counting on a new park to be part of their neighborhood when they moved in, according to Councilmember Andrew Friedson.
“I couldn’t agree more with the need to update the park at Ovid Hazen Wells, which would make the great name of a microbrew actually,” Friedson said. “But I do think that this is a park that is long overdue in its renovation.”
Rice felt that by delaying the project even further the council was making a decision that was unfair to the people of Clarksburg.
“If we can’t say that we’re going to deliver the quality park that they should have in that Clarksburg area to serve the center of town then I don’t see how we can say that we’re truly delivering quality parks to our communities,” Rice said.
Rice made a motion that passed the council by a vote of 7-2 to maintain the original timeline that has the Ovid Hazen Wells Park project slated for 2024.
Councilmember Hans Riemer cast one of the two opposing votes. He was in favor of delaying the park project to accelerate the Brookside Gardens plan. His concern on insisting to maintain the timeline for both the Brookside Gardens project and the work at Ovid Hazen Wells would make for a series of complicated compromises.
“I totally understand Mr. Rice’s motion and his advocacy here,” Riemer said. “I’m not going to support the motion but if the council wants to recommend otherwise that’s fine. At the end of the day, it’s going to go into the pile of complicated tradeoffs that the council president will lead us through (when) forming the capital budget. Some things are going to have to give and so that’s something to keep in mind.”
Rice maintained that his constituents in Clarksburg deserve a convenient park with the same amenities other wards have in Montgomery County.
“We will continue to fight to make sure that other council members understand that promises are meant to be kept,” he said.