Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Fairgrounds move appeals to upcounty residents

Clarksburg ready to welcome AgFair if it moves; Gaithersburg adjusting to the news

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Clarksburg and Boyds residents are excited about the possibility of the county fairgrounds moving to the area, while Gaithersburg residents are adjusting to the idea and the possibilities it presents.

The nonprofit owner of the fairgrounds, Montgomery County Agricultural Center Inc., presented concept plans to its membership last month for possibly developing the 62-acre site in the heart of Gaithersburg. The group is looking at a potential new location in Boyds.

After two years of study, county fair officials said that economic considerations have forced them to consider selling the Gaithersburg site.

Although folks in Gaithersburg would be sad to see the fair go, the possible sale of the fairgrounds and relocation of the agricultural center would mean an opportunity to develop one of the last large parcels of land within Gaithersburg city limits.

‘‘For some people, it’s heartbreaking,” Gaithersburg Councilman Michael A. Sesma said. ‘‘Our links to the agricultural heritage are disappearing and in a way this is the last one.”

When he moved to Gaithersburg 14 years ago, he said, the city still had several working farms, including Crown Farm, which is scheduled to become a mixed-use development, and Banks Farm, which was sold to Johns Hopkins University for a research facility.

‘‘I think potential loss of that kind of direct link to that heritage is significant for some people,” Sesma said.

Pat Darby, president of the Clarksburg Chamber of Commerce, was optimistic about the possibility of having the fairgrounds on the 84-acre Linthicum farm on West Old Baltimore Road.

‘‘It really brings people to Clarksburg to see what Clarksburg is really like,” he said. ‘‘It is good for the revenue for the area businesses.”

Bringing the fairgrounds to the Boyds-Clarksburg area would be a great use of the land, Kathie Hulley, president of the Clarksburg Civic Association, said.

Many people in the area are involved in agriculture and the Linthicum farm seems like a natural place for the fairgrounds, she said.

Hulley and others from the civic association met with Marty Svrcek, executive director of the Montgomery County Agricultural Center, on March 24.

‘‘We don’t have very many concerns at all,” Hulley said. ‘‘I think that any negatives are vastly outweighed by the positives.”

The Linthicum farm, where grain is grown and livestock is raised, is near the Comsat site and borders Interstate 270 and the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway.

Ten Mile Creek watershed is located two miles west of the proposed site.

If the fairgrounds are moved to the farm, a lot of work needs to be done to level the hilly terrain, Tim DeArros, vice president of the Clarksburg Civic Association, said.

‘‘It will require a traffic study, protecting the environment and all of that,” he said. ‘‘I would like to see it up there so we can have an outlet for creativity and excitement, but on the other hand, it is a fragile area that needs to be protected.”

He worried about lowering the quality of the nearby streams and people leaving too much trash in the area. He also said the local roads would need to be improved to handle the increased traffic, which could also impact the streams.

Gaithersburg City Councilwoman Cathy Dryzgula, who lives in Olde Towne Gaithersburg, cautioned residents not to jump to conclusions that the land would definitely be sold.

‘‘My impression also is that the fair people are trying to feel their way on what to do,” she said.

‘‘It’s a little tricky thing because if they get everyone to think they’re moving and then they don’t,” people could get upset,” she added.

Olde Towne residents have been disappointed in the past, she said.

City leaders remained optimistic, saying they understood economic considerations and although they would be sad to see the fair go, a possible land sale could present opportunity.

‘‘There’s been less of a furor than we’ve expected,” Svrcek said. ‘‘It’s just been way less controversy. There’s been a lot of brainstorming going on.”

Mayor Sidney A. Katz said he was not surprised by the news, as rumors about possible relocation of the fairgrounds have swirled for years, he said.

He has heard from residents who would greatly miss the fair and the nostalgia it brings and those who look forward to possible redevelopment in the heart of the city.

The fairgrounds owner presented concept plans for developing the site as a town center with residential and office space.

The City of Gaithersburg and Montgomery County Agricultural Center Inc. have agreed to undergo a charrette planning process that would bring together city officials and planners, key stakeholders and community members in a problem-solving exercise.

The location of the fairgrounds, close to Interstate 270, Route 355, a MARC station and a future Corridor Cities Transitway stop near the planned Watkins Mill Town Center, makes it ideal for development opportunities, Sesma said.

The city has an opportunity to help shape the region with its choice, he said. It will be critical that any development interlock with other planned projects.

‘‘I really think this one requires some out-of-the-box thinking and I hope that what we come out of it with is something that is a real destination, a real amenity for the region,” Gaithersburg Councilman Jud Ashman said. ‘‘And if they stay, fine, that’s their prerogative, I’m happy to have the fair there and the Fourth of July and all of the other stuff they have there. ... I like the fair.”

The charrette process is scheduled to start in the fall and take several years.