Worries stir about Laurel Park land

The Baltimore Sun

The announcement that Laurel Park's owner will sell off property near the racetrack has frustrated western Anne Arundel County residents who supported the company's proposal to build family-friendly shops and restaurants there.

Magna Entertainment Corp. revealed Thursday that it plans to sell assets at Laurel Park - as well as parcels in Florida, Michigan and Austria - in an effort to raise $700 million and stay in business, but company officials did not make clear how much of 364-acre Laurel Park might be sold or when.

Joseph A. De Francis, a Magna executive vice president and the CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, said no decisions have been made on what "excess" land the Canadian owner would eventually sell.

"There's no particular parcel to point to and say, 'That's what is up for sale,' " De Francis said, adding that redevelopment efforts for Laurel Park are still in the planning stage. "It certainly is our goal and our desire to proceed with and execute the plans that we have developed in concert with the surrounding community over the last few years."

County officials declined to comment Friday on the planned sale because of the lack of details.

The uncertainty has bred fear among some community leaders that a long-vacant, 55-acre parcel at Brock Bridge and Whiskey Bottom roads will remain in limbo - or be converted into residential land.

Early last year, the Anne Arundel County Council gave Magna the green light to turn its property in Laurel into a multimillion-dollar commercial district that was to include a new clubhouse, fine dining and shopping. Residents supported the plan because it would serve the local community without adding to local traffic.

Magna's announcement "may not change anything," said Tim Reyburn, president of the West County Federation, a coalition of local community groups. "It may just be that they'll sell some land to another commercial developer, but we don't know."

Laurel Park is made up of three parcels: 239 acres in Anne Arundel that house the main park operations, including the grandstand, track and parking lots; about 70 acres in Howard County that Magna International Development leases to the park for overflow parking; and the 55 acres east of Brock Bridge. That parcel had previously been considered for a Washington Redskins stadium and a NASCAR racing facility, but neighbors quashed both proposals.

Until they learn more about the park's fate, residents are bracing for the worst.

Ray Szyperski, vice president of the Maryland City Civic Association, fears Magna could sell the parcel to a residential developer. Despite its commercial designation, he said, the council could be pressured to rezone it to help accommodate some of the 22,000 defense workers in need of homes near new jobs at Fort Meade.

Laurel residents are keeping a close eye on several potential developments, including a proposed 250-townhouse community adjacent to Laurel Park.

"You put more homes in here and it will really, really back up the roads," Szyperski said. "We would be there fighting it very, very strongly."

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents Laurel, said the 55-acre commercially zoned property is worth potentially several million dollars more than it would be as residential property. A nearby 78-acre parcel controlled by the Board of Education was appraised last year at $8.25 million.

If the entire section were sold, Benoit said, a new owner would want to keep its current zoning to maximize its uses, along with the profit.

"I think it's the Parole Town Center model," Benoit said, referring to Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole, a $400 million development of condominiums, shops, restaurants and office space. "I expect it to be a combination of everything."

Reyburn says the associations he belongs to support that vision. To make it happen, he said, it's time for neighborhood leaders to resume monthly meetings with De Francis and park officials.

"There are all these things around us that are getting ready to pop, and we're just trying to stay on top of them," he said.

Sun reporter Phillip McGowan contributed to this article.

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