Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

Labor center gets initial nod from planners

Planning Board hears public comment Thursday on proposed center off Shady Grove Road

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The county’s planned day-laborer center off Shady Grove Road is set for a public hearing before the Planning Board Thursday, and has been recommended for approval by planning staff.

County planner Sue Edwards makes several recommendations for the project, including that the county track the center’s performance and give updates to the Planning Board and an existing resident committee.

Edwards also suggests that the county ‘‘redirect” buses from Interstate 370 to Shady Grove Road to better serve the center. She added that ‘‘an alternative is to provide shuttle bus service from Gaithersburg to the new center.”

Edward’s also recommends ‘‘multi-language” signs along Crabbs Branch Way, Shady Grove Road and Route 355 to guide workers and employers to the center.

The Planning Board has only an advisory role in the mandatory referral process.

Given the onset of winter and the desire to resolve a divisive community issue quickly, the county is buoyed by the favorable report and is looking to open the site ‘‘as soon as we can” after tomorrow’s hearing, though it won’t be Monday morning, said Chuck Short, County Executive Isiah Leggett’s adviser on the day-laborer issue.

‘‘I don’t want us to start working on this sometime in March, because I know how long it takes government to procure things,” said Short.

Leggett (D) unveiled his plan for the center last month, and decided to move the project through the Planning Board’s mandatory referral process rather than declare it a public emergency and move forward without review.

The plan is to set up two 60-foot trailers side-by-side on a half-acre lot in a county-owned cluster of industrial operations along Crabbs Branch Way, more than half a mile from the nearest home.

The lot is two miles from the areas in Olde Towne Gaithersburg where the several dozen workers have gathered since 2003. Gaithersburg leaders gave up their search for a site in November after being turned away by about 30 landlords.

While the proposed site has stirred worry in Derwood and other nearby communities, it has won favor from several members of a Gaithersburg task force of residents that studied the issue closely last year.

While the task force recommended that a center is better than doing nothing, it also set strict criteria for where a center is suitable — which Cathy Drzyzgula, a task force member and neighbor to the current informal gathering spot in Olde Towne — says the proposed site meets.

She is also hopeful that Leggett’s plan can draw broad support from people looking for practical solutions — a sentiment she feels has gotten lost in the fray of emotion and controversy.

‘‘[T]his choice represents a middle path, since it pleases neither extreme, but instead the larger share of people who hold moderate views on the issue,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette. ‘‘It will help the workers, without putting an undue burden on a particular residential area. ... It is easy when looking at an issue to try and define ‘the two sides,’ but in this case the middle is just as important as the extremes.”

The county still needs to address how it will get the workers and the contractors that hire them to use the new center.

Short said he has had promising talks with religious leaders in Gaithersburg who have advocated for the day laborers. And Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz has also committed the city to doing what it can to encourage the workers. The county may also give the workers bus tokens, Short said.

All those details will be worked later.

‘‘The most important thing is to get the contractors there. That is what this is all about: jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. ‘‘I feel rather certain that if we provide a center where jobs are available, I don’t think people will have a hard time getting there.”

Site specifics

Submitted plans for the day-laborer center call for the following:

Two 24 by 60-foot trailers, put side-by-side

Hours of operation from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday

Three portable toilets

10 parking spaces in a crushed-gravel lot

Picnic tables

Temporary lighting and fencing for security