Dust storm of controversy rises over Salisbury 'field of dreams'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SALISBURY -- Take a script worthy of Hollywood: A forme big-league ballplayer spends years building from scratch a sports program for a bunch of cute, All-American kids and finally scrapes together the money to build four child-sized diamonds in a sorghum field.

Then add a strong dose of reality: Angry neighbors say the fields will bring unwanted noise and traffic, devalue their properties and ruin their retirements.

Call it "Field of Dreams II." To adapt a line from the movie: Propose to build it and they will come -- to zoning hearings.

Tom Brown, a former Washington Senator and Green Bay Packer, proposed to build it -- four baseball fields (no lights), a flag-football field, a concession stand, a parking lot and eventually a small gymnasium -- on 7 1/2 acres just west of Salisbury.

Frances Parish, a retired elementary school teacher who lives next door to the Quantico Road site, set out to stop it -- going door-to-door to tell neighbors that no matter how worthy the program, her backyard wasn't the proper place for it.

Parents from Tom Brown's Rookie League and Quantico Road neighbors lined up on opposite sides at two marathon zoning board hearings. A decision is expected soon.

"I've been on the board since 1975," said J. Phillips Wright Jr., Wicomico County Board of Zoning Appeals chairman, "and there's not

been one case that's even come close to receiving this much attention."

After all, Tom Brown's proposal strikes some resonant chords for Americans: children, baseball and property rights.

"There really are two concurrent themes," said William C. Livingston, county planning director. "One is apple pie, motherhood and Chevrolet. The other is, hey, but we have to live around it. If you like that much apple pie and motherhood, why not put it in your neighborhood?"

The controversy began last October, when Mr. Brown and his wife, Nancy, signed a $125,000 contract on a six-bedroom brick rancher with a sorghum field for a back yard. The sale is contingent upon the Browns'getting zoning board approval to build the sports complex there.

For the Browns, it was a chance to escape the rented town house where they have lived with their two children for the past eight years and to avoid relying on Salvation Army and school fields and gyms for their Rookie League, which often has a waiting list.

"A lot of people have said, 'It's your field of dreams,' and it is," said Mr. Brown, who works full time as a county liquor inspector. "For 19 years I've been doing this. I'm 50 years old, and I can see it here. . . . If I didn't think positively I would have quit a long time ago. Now it's there. I can grab it now."

Tom Brown grew up in Silver Spring and was a two-sport star at the University of Maryland, leading the league in both batting average and pass receptions. Mr. Brown says he was no Bo Jackson, but he remains the only man to have played both in major league baseball and on a Super Bowl champion football team.

However, he preceded the big-money era of pro sports. Even as a starting safety on the best Packer teams, he says he never made more than $50,000 in a year, including Super Bowl winnings. So when, at 29, his football career ended, he was left to start life over.

He floundered. He became Ocean City's first recreation director, quit to start a summer camp, then failed to get zoning approval for it. He moved back to Montgomery County, went through a messy divorce and found himself explaining to judges why a Super Bowl champion couldn't keep up with child-support payments.

He sold real estate in Gaithersburg while working in youth sports programs, then landed in Salisbury nine years ago. The Rookie League, geared to children ages 6 through 12, began to acquire an enviable reputation as a program where kids thrive, even if they miss the ball or run the wrong way.

Mr. Brown, a soft-spoken man with the strong jaw and easy amble of the athlete, described his philosophy as, "Let them have fun, don't get too technical and for heaven's sakes, don't holler at them."

Rookie League parents have provided the bulk of the Browns' support in the zoning case.

They are people like Mary Ann Justice, who drove 40 minutes each way from Pocomoke City twice a week last summer so that her 11-year-old son, who would be a Little League bench-warmer at home, could play ball with Tom Brown.

learned the basics, played the entire game, felt good and when he made mistakes he was told, 'You'll do better next time.' He just came out glowing," Mrs. Justice said.

Praise for Mr. Brown has poured into the zoning board and the local newspaper: "The most effective coach we have ever

encountered," "one of the kindest, most patient people I have ever seen with children," "one of the county's true unsung heroes."

"He's a legend and almost like a god to a lot of these parents," said Mr. Wright, the zoning board chairman. "Unfortunately, from his point of view, that has nothing to do with his use of the land. . . . This is a zoning issue. Mr. Brown's character was not on the agenda."

The fast-growing Quantico Road area where Tom Brown wants to build his fields is zoned for residential and farm uses. Mr. Brown could put chicken houses on the flat 7 1/2 -acre tract, but privately owned recreation facilities need special approval.

Developers Hugh McLaughlin and Thomas Ruark plan to build 195 single-family homes immediately west of the Rookie League site, but they did not testify on the Brown proposal. Mr. McLaughlin said the ballfields would lower the value of adjoining lots, but he said: "You can't have bad PR in a small town. There's nothing we can do about it at this point. We don't want to look like we're trying to squelch a little guy."

The county's planning staff, in its report on the case, said the complex"may be more suitable in an area that is not developing with new residential subdivisions."

Mr. Brown must persuade the board that his project won't strain nearby roads and won't "adversely affect the health, safety and general welfare" of area residents.

Frances Parish and her fellow opponents, mainly older people accustomed to seeing deer out of their back windows, contend that the Rookie League complex fails all the tests. They say it would be noisy, increase traffic, lower property values and be a commercial intrusion.

"The whole thrust has been how wonderful Tom Brown is. He is simply a man with a halo around his head. . . . You can talk about how wonderful it is, but it's not going to be as wonderful to us," said Mrs. Parish, 75, a former schoolteacher whose husband, Wilton, had heart bypass surgery last month.

Margaret Poore, the site's other next-door neighbor, said: "They did want us to feel like we're coming out against children, and that's not the case. But we're all aware of what children do when they have a good time. I could see softballs coming in my windows."

Mrs. Poore has a contract to buy the house she has rented for 1 1/2 years, contingent on the Brown plan being rejected. She fears the Rookie League would bring a dusty parade of cars past her door on afternoons and weekends. If the Browns win, she won't buy, she said.

Patricia Fox, a retired teacher who lives next door to the Parishes, said, "Noise is what bothers me the most, and it's going to be every day, including weekends. We can't enjoy our backyard with all that going on.

"I hope I'm not being selfish. Children need somewhere to go, but with all the places we have in Wicomico County, he could find somewhere not in a residential area," she said.

Only one nearby resident, David Crockett, wrote the board in support of the Browns. "I just thought it would be taking something away from the kids" to oppose the project, said Mr. Crockett, 71, a former semi-pro third baseman and member of the Eastern Shore Hall of Fame. "In a town growing like Salisbury, it's hard to pick a place where it wouldn't bother somebody."

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