Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

County gets mixed reaction to choice for center

Officals now say Crabbs Branch locaton for day laborers is temporary

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Following County Executive Isiah Leggett’s announcement on Thursday that a new employment center for day laborers will be located within the County Service Park, residents of the Derwood area have reacted with surprise, support and anger.

They say the area is already burdened with the presence of the industrial facilities in the County Service Park, the planned Intercounty Connector and a growing amount of residential development.

The Montgomery County Service Park is a county-owned cluster of industrial facilities just south of Shady Grove Road. The center will be located on a half-acre site at 16644 Crabbs Branch Way, just behind a Department of Liquor Control warehouse.

The Derwood site is more than half a mile from the closest residential area, according to a statement from Leggett. It is about 700 yards from the nearest bus stop and a little more than a mile away from the Shady Grove Metro station.

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

According to Leggett’s statement, his plan is to set up a trailer and possibly portable bathrooms on the site. The service park 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.

Several Derwood residents are not happy with the county’s decision to move the site to their community.

‘‘I think it’s a problem that what Rockville and Gaithersburg don’t want, Derwood gets,” Pat Labuda, president of the Greater Shady Grove Civic Alliance and a member of the Shady Grove Advisory Committee, said Thursday. ‘‘Derwood is not the solution to what nobody else wants.”

She said she feels that putting the day-laborer center in Derwood would add more traffic to the area and complicate the already difficult process in implementing the Shady Grove Sector Plan.

However, she did say that she supports what the day-laborer center is setting out to do.

‘‘I do, though, support the need for this facility,” Labuda said. ‘‘I support the county’s actions in helping people who are newly arrived to this county and country.”

She added that she just wishes the county had addressed Derwood citizens about their plans for the center before going ahead and picking the County Service Park site.

‘‘We weren’t even consulted about this,” Labuda said. ‘‘I didn’t even know anything about it until I read about it in The Gazette and I think that the county should be looking for our input. This decision was made by people who don’t live here.”

Brad Botwin, a member of the Shady Grove Advisory Committee and former co-president of the Greater Shady Grove Civic Alliance, said he, like Labuda, is mostly concerned over how the day-laborer center would affect the sector plan implementation process. He said he has dedicated years participating in the planning process for the project.

‘‘At no time in three and a half years did the notion of a day-laborer center come up. Ever,” Botwin, who has actively opposed the county’s support of illegal immigrants, said.

Every part of the plan had to go through committee meetings and approvals, he said, ‘‘But this, [Leggett] can, on a whim, slap [it] in the middle of the property.”

‘‘It’s funny that the rank-and-file county staff follows procedures, but our county executive does not,” Botwin said.

Botwin recently started an organization called Help Save Maryland to address quality of life issues, public safety and accountability by elected officials, he said. The day-laborer site is the first issue on his agenda.

Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Leggett, said last week that he does not expect the day-laborer center to conflict with redevelopment of the Shady Grove area, adding that those plans are years away from being implemented. He said that the center is planned as a temporary facility, noting that the county hopes to assist day laborers by transitioning them into more permanent jobs.

Barnaby Walsh, a resident of Derwood and a member of the Greater Shady Grove Civic Alliance, said he does not have a problem with the day-laborer center itself, but is concerned about who will be using it.

‘‘I do, however, have a problem with the fact that it is, and will continue to provide, county-funded support to people who are in this country illegally,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Derwood community listserv.

His e-mail continued that the center ‘‘will serve as a magnet to those in the metro area who are not receiving the same level of service where they currently reside.”

He added that the day-laborer center would harm ‘‘the quality of life, property values, schools and traffic in Derwood.”

Other residents, though, are less worried about the day-laborer center’s presence.

‘‘I don’t see the day-laborer center as a major issue, at least not compared with the ICC, the Shady Grove Master Plan and other developments in Derwood,” Kenneth D. Weiss, who is on the board of directors for the Greater Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and first vice president of the Greater Shady Grove Civic Alliance, said. ‘‘There are people who want to work and people who want to hire them. The proposed center will just provide a place where the two can meet, with enough supervision to make sure the process works smoothly.”

He said he does understand, though, some residents’ concern over the day laborers legal status — or lack thereof — as American citizens.

‘‘I recognize that a majority of the workers who use this kind of center are undocumented; however, while immigration reform is debated and, hopefully, reformed at the federal level, local governments should focus on meeting the needs of people in their jurisdictions,” Weiss said.

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

‘‘People can testify, but for what purpose?” Botwin asked. ‘‘They’ve already started the construction.”

Lacefield said the county hopes to have the center running by mid-February. The county also hopes to hire the immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland to run the center, he noted.

Casa already operates the county’s day-laborer centers in Silver Spring and Wheaton.

Staff Writer Liza Gutierrez also contributed to this report.