Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Gaithersburg questions county plan for tech park

Mayor and City Council call for more details; county official says community meetings will begin next month

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Gaithersburg leaders are raising questions about aspects of County Executive Isiah Leggett’s proposal to relocate several county agencies to a 96-acre property on the city’s southern edge, between the Kentlands and Lakelands communities.

But with the plan in its early stages, county officials were unable to give key details Monday night in the first direct presentation given to Mayor Sidney A. Katz and the City Council.

When Leggett (D) unveiled his vision in December to create a ‘‘public safety campus” at the GE Tech Park on Route 28, Gaithersburg officials had had informal discussions that something was afoot, but did not know the extent of Leggett’s sweeping plan.

So far, the GE Tech Park is the ‘‘preferred site” for Leggett’s plan but presents a ‘‘once-in-a-half-century opportunity” to upgrade and expand a number of aging county facilities, said assistant Chief Administrative Officer Diane Schwartz Jones.

‘‘This plan is really in its infancy at this point. We’ve done the legwork to see if it makes sense, and clearly it does make sense,” she said.

The plan would relocate county police headquarters, the 1st District police station, the county’s office of homeland security and the classrooms and gym for the Public Safety Training Academy into a six-story office building on the site. A 240,000 square-foot warehouse owned by Finmarc Inc., which leases the building to Giant Foods Inc. for its Peapod delivery service, would be converted for use by the county’s Department of Liquor Control. The county would build a new structure to house the county school system’s food warehouse.

Also known as the former National Geographic campus, the property was annexed into Gaithersburg in 1989 and is the largest undeveloped property within city borders.

One of the early sticking points is that Gaithersburg leaders believe the county ought to be subject to the city’s planning and approval process.

‘‘Obviously, we believe you would need to go through Gaithersburg’s process,” Katz said. ‘‘... Whether it’s a courtesy or a mandate, we think it’s best.”

Schwartz Jones said the county is open to the discussion.

Other concerns from the City Council centered around traffic and noise impacts and making sure that the county reaches out to the community as the process moves forward.

Councilman Michael Sesma raised concerns about the impact of a proposed shooting range and helipad. Al Roshdieh, operations chief for the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, said the range will be in the basement of the GE building and pointed out that the county does not have a helicopter.

‘‘I don’t foresee that there will be a lot of helicopter traffic,” he said.

Roshdieh added that the county will ‘‘certainly do a traffic study” to get a better sense of the potential impact on the surrounding community.

The county would have to buy the property from Avalon Bay Communities Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based developer.

The move would clear the way for the long-discussed redevelopment of county land around the Shady Grove Metro station. For years, county officials have sought to move most, if not all, of its industrial operations in the County Service Park, which straddles Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville.

The County Council will have to sign off on the relocation plan. Leggett’s office intends to discuss the relocation with the council soon after its return from break next week — then reach out to the community next month to schedule public meetings, Schwartz Jones said.

The plan has already irked some neighbors of the property, especially in the Lakelands and Kentlands.

Monday night, Kentlands resident Richard Arkin questioned the ‘‘removal of this extremely valuable land from the tax rolls,” which added $40,707 last year to the city’s coffers, according to county tax records.

Arkin also blasted the plan for its incompatibility with a city land-use study of the property.

‘‘Some of the uses that were identified shock me, quite frankly,” he said. ‘‘What is being proposed is a real oxymoron; taking industrial facilities ... and rather than planting them in another industrial area or rural area... we ‘re going to put them in a densely populated area with neighborhoods on both sides. This is going to impact not just the Kentlands but all Gaithersburg and North Potomac.”

After the county’s presentation Monday night, Councilmen Henry Marraffa and Ryan Spiegel vowed to make sure there is ample opportunity for the public to learn about the plan and have input.

‘‘We will be watching this closely,” Spiegel said. ‘‘It sounds like we are in the early stages of this, but I don’t want the county to rush this too fast, or let the county rush something past us.”

Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula called for more definitive information on what the city’s role will be, which she said has remained ‘‘nebulous” amid the information that has come out.

‘‘The county says they’re looking for the future of the county,” she said. ‘‘We need to look for the future of Gaithersburg.”

The proposal

County Executive Isiah Leggett’s plan to relocate and upgrade several county operations could bring the following county operations to the 96-acre GE Technology Park in Gaithersburg:

A multi-use public safety headquarters, which would include a new police headquarters, a new 1st District police station and the homeland security operation

A new home for the Board of Elections

Warehouse for the county’s Department of Liquor Control

MCPS’s food warehouse

The county would hold on to any future development rights