Morgan, Little League fight over fields University's plan displaces Northwood Baseball's diamonds


Think David and Goliath. Now picture Northwood Baseball League and Morgan State University slinging words over one of the world's oldest commodities: land.

University officials are seeking 500 parking spaces to go with a yet-to-be-built on-campus performing arts center. They also want new dirt field for the school's women's softball team. But the parking lot and field, on roughly 12 acres of city-owned land across from campus on Argonne Drive, would displace three baseball diamonds that one of the city's largest Little Leagues has used for decades.

"We're a landlocked university with an acute shortage of playing space," said Abraham Moore, Morgan's vice president of finance and management. He described the $38 million performing arts center the university hopes to break ground on soon as "an important anchor to the whole [Northeast Baltimore] neighborhood."

League officials are balking -- and enlisting the aid of a city councilman -- to ensure either that their home turf stays the same or Morgan contributes a substantial sum, around $150,000, to a new nearby playing area and field house.

James Henderson, a Northwood baseball official and coach, stated the view from his side of the fence: The fields should be kept for the players, because the league has been using the city land free of charge for 40 years, albeit with no more legal power than a handshake. "We're there. They're not. If we have to give up land, there are limits."

Henderson, 55, whose two grown children played in the league, added: "Baltimore City needs all the recreation programs we can get." If it comes to losing one of the three grass diamonds, he said, "we will go to war to stop that. It means too much to the community."

Charles C. Graves III, the city planning director, has been called upon to play umpire, and hopes to mediate a compromise in the next few weeks on how to divide the land.

"I've been asked to see if we couldn't negotiate an agreement between the parties," said Graves. "It seems like an easy job, but "

Even after a summit at the fields last week, no agreement is in sight. During the meeting, the parties warily surveyed the woods surrounding the fields to see how they might share the land. "We walked the fields and in the woods, getting bit by mosquitoes and everything," Graves said.

Graves and Moore acknowledged that Morgan's position in the negotiation is fixed by state policy. The conflict has brought to light what some perceive as a hitch in the state's Smart Growth policy when it comes to parking lots. An official from the state Department of Management and Budget said the state will fund only flat parking lots, not multistoried parking decks. Both sides in the dispute agree that the policy makes for an inefficient use of land.

"Morgan is constrained by the state policy," said Graves.

Said Moore, "We would like very much for that [parking lot] policy to be adjusted, but we have to work with the current situation," he said.

Daily, from April to August, the three baseball diamonds on Argonne Drive east of Hillen Road teem with boys and girls ages 6 to 15, 670 in all. Organizers say it is the city's largest Little League.

City Councilman Robert Curran, who represents the 3rd District, played in the league as a boy. He said his father, J. Joseph Curran Sr., "was one of the founding fathers" in 1958. One of the fields bears the family name.

The younger Curran vowed in an interview before the on-field summit, "You're not going to put the [city's] largest baseball league out of business."

Curran said another parking lot near Morgan's engineering build- ing is largely empty. "It's the largest parallel-parking facility on the East Coast."

Still, Moore said, the new lot is essential, and school officials want to establish a harmonious relationship with the league. "We do not consider ourselves antagonistic to the baseball fields. We believe the baseball league will benefit from association with Morgan State University."

But Henderson, the league official, said a women's softball field is out of the question: "When games are going on, it could be a dangerous situation. We're not willing to work with a fourth field." He also wants to retain the league's autonomy from its neighbor.

Whether the gently sloping parcel of city land next to the Montebello water filtration facility can fit three new enlarged baseball diamonds -- which the league is demanding -- a women's softball field and a new parking lot remains to be seen.

Whatever the outcome, planning director Graves said, "It will be a real tight use of land and disturb a lot of trees. That's the challenge we're facing here in the planning world."

Pub Date: 9/12/98

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