County unlikely to get NFL legend's lacrosse 'mecca' over environmental issues  

By ERIN COX, Staff Writer Published 10/02/11

Capital file photo by Paul W. Gillespie
Lina Vlavianos (in blue hat and jacket), chair of the Severn River Commission, on a 2007 tour of the Jabez Branch. Environmental concerns about the stream and its brook trout helped stop a national lacrosse complex from coming to the county. Trout disappeared from the branch in 1990 following construction of Interstate 97. Ecologists spent more than a decade reviving the stream and restocking it with fish.

In May 2009, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino dropped by the Arundel Center with a tantalizing proposal.

Marino, along with lobbyist Gerry Evans, pitched a "mecca" for lacrosse in Anne Arundel County. It was the first of Marino's two visits representing Legends Sports Group, a venture organization that includes another NFL legend, Jim Brown, plus some local business people.

They envisioned a sports complex on more than 100 acres with a stadium, a dozen artificial turf athletic fields and cabins for summer camps. All of it would be built on public land at little or no cost to the county.

During lacrosse season, the complex would be abuzz with some of the country's 580,000 young players, earning revenue for Legends. In the offseason, the county government could use the fields as it wished.

Evans said the potential boon of building a complex in Millersville, only 20 minutes from BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, is obvious to anyone, like himself, whose children play youth lacrosse.

"All the important tournaments, we'd have to travel to," Evans said. "You end up spending thousands of dollars, and the fact that we're supposed to be the hub of lacrosse on the East Coast, we should have this facility here. We wanted it in Anne Arundel County."

Two years later, Marino's group has all but abandoned plans for Millersville, turning instead to Bowie, where the Prince George's County government has offered "nothing but open arms," Evans said.

Bowie doesn't have a problem with brook trout.

Sensitive land

There's only one place in Maryland's coastal plain where brook trout naturally reproduce: the ecologically sensitive Jabez Branch, fed by springs. Some environmentalists say it's the only coastal spot south of Rhode Island where the 10- to 25-inch-long fish can naturally spawn. And it's not far from the only spot in Anne Arundel County suitable for building a 100-acre lacrosse complex on public land.

Environmentalists and politicians disagree about whether the project was impossible from the beginning. Privately, people involved with negotiations said better political maneuvering could have allayed environmentalists' concerns. Publicly, politicians offer a shrug.

"In order for this to work, a lot of moving parts had to come together, and they just didn't," County Executive John R. Leopold's spokesman, David Abrams, said. In August, Leopold said he supported the concept of the project, but last week declined to be interviewed about the proposal falling apart.

"We made every effort to try to make this project successful, and the bottom line is that was not a feasible place to put it," Abrams said.

The brook trout need cool water, provided by springs that seep from nearby hillsides. When drains pour warmer stormwater into the Jabez or it fills with silt, the fish die.

By 1990, all the fish were dead, a phenomenon blamed on a misplaced storm drain and construction work on Route 32, Interstate 97 and Route 3.

Ecologists spent more than a decade reviving the stream and restocking it with fish. This summer, some environmentalists were asked to issue an opinion on the lacrosse project, without knowing the details about it.

"We simply didn't have enough information to recommend that one of the most forested properties - at the headwaters of one of the most environmentally sensitive streams - should be bulldozed," said Jeff Schomig, a member of the influential Severn River Commission, an advisory panel that wrote a letter recommending against using the property.

"It's not just about saving a few brook trout," Schomig said. "It's about preserving the (stream's) characteristics that allow them to survive."

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who represents the area, was an ex-officio member of the Severn River Commission but didn't attend all its meetings. He resigned after the commission sent a letter opposing the lacrosse project.

"It makes no sense to kill the project," Benoit said. "It's a good idea. The parcel's perfect for it, it's right next to a highway. ... It's a project that can get built and totally respect the environmental concerns that everybody has."

Tricky land deal

To create enough land in Anne Arundel County for the lacrosse complex, Legends needed to orchestrate a multifaceted land deal. The Maryland State Highway Administration owns about 80 acres at Burns Crossing Road and Route 32, a few miles south of the county landfill. Local housing developer Koch Homes owns a vacant 50-acre parcel next door, for which homes were planned.

The county government needed to persuade state officials to give the forested land to Anne Arundel County, and Koch needed to sell its piece to Legends, which in turn would give it to the county government. According to people familiar with negotiations, Koch agreed to sell if the highway administration gave up its land. The deal set up a choice for development in the area: either about 18 homes would be built, or a sports complex would.

"The facility couldn't have gone forward without the trade-off," said House Speaker Michael Busch, whose full-time job is as recreation administrator for Anne Arundel County. The question, he said, became, "Was it less impact on the environment to build the homes than the sports complex?"

Lina Vlavianos, chair of the Severn River Commission, said it was "absolutely, no question" better to go with the housing development, whose environmental impact would be tightly controlled by stormwater regulations. The Koch property is now in the county government's approval process to build homes.

"I think it just got too complicated with the whole Severn River Commission," said Evans, the lobbyist for Legends. "There was a whole lot of drama associated with it. We just wanted to build the facility, and it just ended up being a whole lot more heavy lifting."

Opportunity seized

Prince George's County officials, meanwhile, offered no such drama, though Evans emphasized that the Bowie plan is far from sealed.

"We've got nothing but open arms from Prince George's County," Evans said. "They want the jobs. They want to put a hotel there where the parents can stay."

State Sen. Douglas Peters, D-Bowie, has a teenage son who plays lacrosse for DeMatha High School. The family will spend about $1,500 to attend a tournament in Florida this month, which may or may not involve a hassle.

"We've literally had to drive from one school to another school, and then back to the other school, depending on whether or not you lose," Peters said. The Legends proposal would concentrate those games in a single spot in Bowie, surrounded by existing hotels and restaurants.

"The idea would be to get those kinds of tournaments to come to Maryland, and then we could get the economic spin-off," Peters said.

According to U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body for the sport, involvement in lacrosse has grown 150 percent in the past decade. The number of players in high school or younger grew by 10.5 percent in 2010 alone. And Maryland has more lacrosse players under 15 years old than any other state in the organization.

"It's an emerging industry as sports for young people become more specialized," said Busch.

Now, Legends plans to put the complex on 250 acres near the existing minor league baseball stadium for the Bowie Baysox at U.S. 50 and 301. The Prince George's County government owns the land, eliminating the need for a complex land deal. So far, preliminary plans have been drawn.

"It's got political backing, and now it's just really a matter of engineering," Peters said.

Lose Bayhawks, too?

Bowie plans include 10 turf fields, two of which would have stadium seating to accommodate 2,000 spectators. A possible second phase would include a new stadium for Maryland's professional lacrosse team, the Chesapeake Bayhawks, who now play at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.

Through a spokeswoman, the Bayhawks declined to comment on the possible new stadium.

A park still may come to the spot in Millersville, over the objections of the Severn River Commission.

Last month, Benoit introduced a resolution to pursue talks with the highway administration about creating a nonspecific regional park. His measure failed by a 4-3 vote, but Council Chairman Dick Ladd said Friday he's considered revisiting his vote against the project at tomorrow's council meeting, so that talks can continue.

Meanwhile, the Maryland State Highway Administration is willing to keep talking about what to do with the land.

"This has been in discussion for a few years," said Kellie Boulware, agency spokesperson. "We're still in the process of discussing it."

(Revised October 2011)