Montgomery picks day-laborer site

Planning Board hearing set for Feb. 8

Friday, Jan. 19, 2007

A parcel of land in the Montgomery County Service Park, a county-owned cluster of industrial facilities just south of Shady Grove Road, will be the site of a new employment center for day laborers, county officials announced Thursday.

The center will be located on a half-acre behind a Department of Liquor Control warehouse at 16640 Crabbs Branch Way.

According to a statement from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), the site is more than half a mile from the closest residential area. It is also about 700 yards from the nearest bus stop. The Shady Grove Metro station is a little more than a mile away.

The plan is the county’s solution to the sometimes-bitter struggle to address the dozens of mostly Latino day laborers who have routinely gathered in Gaithersburg parking lots in hopes of being hired for temporary work, such as construction or landscape jobs.

‘‘If we do nothing, this situation doesn’t just go away. I believe we should address this challenge now,” Leggett said in the statement.

His plan is to set up a trailer and possibly portable bathrooms on the site. The service park area lies between the cities of Gaithersburg and Rockville and is roughly 1.5 miles south of the Gaithersburg lot where laborers gather now.

Gaithersburg officials abandoned their effort to open a center in the city last fall after meeting widespread opposition.

Gaithersburg City Manager David B. Humpton said Thursday afternoon that the city would not comment on the county decision until after Mayor Sidney A. Katz meets with Leggett today.

Because the site is outside both Gaithersburg and Rockville, the county has sole control over the site’s approval process.

Leggett has asked the county Planning Board to expedite the required mandatory referral process, but according to the planning rules, Leggett can make the ultimate decision. The board is scheduled to hold a public hearing on Feb. 8.

The county hopes to have the center running by mid-February, Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Thursday. ‘‘It is not going to go up before we have a chance to get comments from the public,” he said.

Some residents in the Shady Grove Sector planning area are not happy with the county’s decision. They say the area is already burdened with enough.

‘‘You name it, we’ve got it. Don’t just dump this in our area,” said Derwood resident Brad Botwin.

He listed the county’s trash transfer station, a bus maintenance yard and other industrial facilities in addition to the end-point of the future Intercounty Connector highway.

‘‘And now to have this plopped in ... it’s exhausting. Enough. I’ve just had it,” Botwin said.

On Monday Botwin, a 22-year Derwood resident, resigned his position as co-president of the Greater Shady Grove Civic Alliance to form a new group — Help Save Maryland.

That group will work to prevent the day-laborer center from opening, he said.

But county officials say they have picked a very compatible location. They cite the industrial nature of the service park and note the area is also bounded by the CSX railroad tracks and Interstate 370.

‘‘One of our objectives was to make sure it would not be close to residential neighborhoods, and I think we achieved that,” Lacefield said.

As for the redevelopment of the Shady Grove area, the county does not expect the center to present a conflict.

Botwin said the site is earmarked for a library in the Shady Grove Sector Plan. But Lacefield pointed out those plans are years from being implemented.

‘‘What we’re saying is that this [day-laborer center] is temporary,” he said. ‘‘Our intent is to set this up as temporary expedient and to work through to the day where we’re not going to need this because we move people out of day labor and into something else.”

Leggett told The Gazette that he wants to change the county’s approach to assisting day laborers and move away from operating employment centers.

‘‘I’m not interested in having sites all over the county,” he said. ‘‘I do not want that to become our standard operating procedure, that every community gets one.”

Moving workers from short-term hires to permanent jobs is the long-term solution, Leggett said. His idea is to tap into the county’s economic development money to make loans to entrepreneurial day laborers so they can create their own micro-enterprises.

The program would be similar to the one being used to assist small businesses and could only be used by legal immigrants, Leggett adviser Chuck Short said.

‘‘My sense of these enterprises is that they ... will operate under the same principles, and receive nothing special other than a little more assistance in helping navigate the complexities of the paperwork,” he said.

As for the new Shady Grove center, the planned double-wide trailer will cost $45,000 to install and roughly $2,000 a month to operate, according to the county. The money will come out of the $115,000 that the County Council approved last year to operate the would-be center in Gaithersburg.

The county hopes to hire the immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland to run the center, Lacefield said. Casa already operates the county’s day-laborer centers in Silver Spring and Wheaton.