Rockville officials said Monday that they will consider the closed RedGate Golf Course as a possible site for a veterans home or parkland. Credit: Photo by Glynis Kazanjian

Rockville officials agreed Monday to formally study the closed RedGate Golf Course as a future site for a veterans home and other “passive” parkland uses, while getting community input on a final plan.

A decision was also made to close the doors on studying the 144-acre parcel for almost all other commercial, industrial and residential purposes — including a bus depot. A possible exception could be a group home for people with mental and physical impairments, an idea Councilwoman Beryl Feinberg would like to see studied.

Across the board, there was strong consensus that RedGate is the last remaining large parcel of land within the city, and parkland in some form would be the best use for the majority of the property.

“This is the last large bit of parkland in this area, and I think we owe it to the people to keep it,” Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said.

The Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, aided by state and local advocates, has been pursuing the possibility of building a second state facility on the site since the golf course abruptly closed in late 2018. Initial plans call for a 120-bed facility with about 175 employees, including doctors, nurses, and administrators.

Billy Casper Golf, the management company which had run the course since 2012, abruptly ended its lease three years early. Sales and revenues had fallen over the years while Billy Casper let the course fall into disrepair.

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Councilman Mark Pierzchala tried on Monday to persuade city officials to limit the scope of the study to a VA home, primary parkland, and possibly one or two other uses, but the majority of the council opted for a more expansive approach.

An agreement was made to study the land within the confined parameters of a state Department of Veterans Affairs home, parkland and recreational uses, the arts and any other needs the city might determine.

Pierzchala said he fears an open-ended study might turn political, as it did last year leading into the 2019 mayor and council elections, when plans for RedGate were shelved.

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“I would rather limit the box right now — not in respect to what kind of parkland, but in certain other respects,” he said. “I personally would like to close that out right now.”

The mayor and council agreed to fast-track the study. The goal is 12 months. Rockville’s next election is in 2023.

“I would err on the side of wanting to hear from the experts. There may be things we haven’t even thought of,” Feinberg said. “I fear if we’re limiting, we’re maybe defining the box when maybe this time, we have to let the experts try and give us opportunities and options we’ve just never ever thought of.”

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Donnell Newton said she agreed with Pierzchala, especially on using resources to study options that might not happen, but sided with the majority of council members to keep options open, considering the strong interest in having a park there.

“We want to make sure we have all the information,” first-term Councilman David Myles, who ran on a slate with Pierzchala, said. “It would take a whole lot to stop something after it’s already there, as opposed to having the information to make the most informed decision from the start. This is the last parcel of contiguous space of this magnitude and I would certainly want to get it right, so I support the wider scope.”

Another large concern among the group was the potential cost of infrastructure improvements and public utilities.

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Veterans homes are funded and constructed through partnerships between the state and the federal governments. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs contributes two-thirds of the costs, Maryland Veterans Affairs Secretary George Owings has said.

The state is responsible for a third of the funding and securing the land for the project. It also operates the facility once construction is complete.

But under the federal government plan, land can only be donated. The question of who pays for road improvements and utilities for the site remains unknown.

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The mayor and council are looking for the county to help support the project on some level, but specifics were not discussed.

First-term Councilwoman Monique Ashton, who ran on a slate with Donnell Newton, emphasized the importance of having a full understanding of the infrastructure needs for any potential use.

“We haven’t figured out how we’re going to pay for it and get it in there,” Ashton said. “I think we should limit [the VA home] to one of the options, but [have] the majority of the options be focused on parkland.”

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Ashton suggested dedicating a page on the city’s website to promote transparency for the project. Others suggested having many community forums.

City Manager Rob DiSpirito said he would prepare a draft “scope” summary immediately for the mayor and council to consider. The staff could quickly move forward with requests for proposals for land-use consultants to study the property, he said.

DiSpirito said the city anticipates paying for the study using existing revenues. City officials estimate the cost to be about $300,000.

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“Significant” parkland, an amphitheater, an arboretum, and walking trails are among some of the uses the city will consider.

Newton said she defines significant as: “Every last inch [of land] that’s not necessary for the other uses this body might agree to do.”