Some Chevy Chase residents are bridling at a proposal for an indoor riding arena at Meadowbrook Stables — one of the oldest urban riding facilities in the country.
Critics say the new arena in Rock Creek Park would lower property values, ruin neighborhood views, and pose an environmental hazard during rainy weather. But supporters say the project is a much-needed upgrade at the 85-year-old stable, where horses and riders are often limited by bad weather.
“We’re one of the rare facilities not to have an indoor ring,” said Katrina Weinig, the executive director at Meadowbrook. “It’s very unusual for this climate and for a stable of our size.”
Meadowbrook has operated in Chevy Chase since 1934 — a 9-acre property marked by a weathered white barn. The surrounding neighborhood of split-level homes was built around the stable, which sits on the Montgomery County side of Rock Creek Park, said Jay Holland, a neighbor opposed to the project.
The stable has a long-term lease with the Montgomery County Parks Department, which purchased much of the parkland property in the 1940s, said Andy Frank, section chief for the department’s development division.
Meadowbrook has planned to add an indoor arena since 2003, when it signed a two-part development agreement with the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, Weinig said.
The first phase, completed between 2003 and 2005, was funded by a $3 million contribution from David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media and Meadowbrook’s sole benefactor at the time. Weinig said the money was used to bring the historic facility to “modern standards,” including new fencing, landscaping, and major renovations to its four sand riding rings.
The second phase laid out plans for a pavilion-style riding arena to shelter one of largest existing rings. But the stable — operated by the nonprofit Meadowbrook Foundation — was responsible for raising its own funding for the second phase of development, Weinig said.
“It’s a lot easier to do this kind of project when you have one wealthy funder,” she added. The stable didn’t launch a capital campaign until 2017, when Weinig came on as its executive director.
Meadowbrook submitted a concept plan to Montgomery Parks in early 2018, but didn’t formally announce plans to build the arena until November 2019, when it raised enough money to complete the project, she said.
David Tobin, the manager of public-private partnerships for Montgomery Parks, said the agency released some preliminary information about the proposal in December 2019. But the department began most of its public outreach at the beginning of the year to avoid appearing as if it were releasing information over the busy holiday season, he added.
But Holland said the department did exactly that. He wasn’t aware of the proposal until Jan. 4, when his neighbors noticed a sign posted in front of the stables. Holland said he was skiing in Utah at the time and was upset to learn that Meadowbrook had been raising money for the project without consulting the community.
“There are both procedural and substantive reasons for the concern,” he said in a phone interview on Friday. His back fence is about 60 feet from the site where Meadowbrook plans to build the arena, and Holland said the new structure would block the view of Rock Creek Park for him and his neighbors.
“It would completely change the character of the park to install what will essentially be a warehouse where people enjoy walking and biking,” he said. “It would benefit the privileged few who ride at the stable at the expense of tens of thousands of people who use the park and surrounding trails.”
Holland also argued it was an environmental hazard to build a new structure in a flood-prone area. Meadowbrook Stables is built on a 100-year floodplain that covers the vast majority of Rock Creek Park, Frank said. When new facilities are constructed in the area, they’re required to meet flood-proofing and stormwater management standards to minimize their environmental impact.
Holland was one of 17 community members to oppose the arena in online comments to the Parks Department. Most cited environmental concerns, saying that stormwater runoff from the roof would worsen floods in the area.
But Weinig said a few nearby neighbors drove opposition to the arena, pointing out that the vast majority of commenters supported the project. The arena was specifically designed to minimize the environmental risk and match the historic architecture of the stables, she said.
The roof area of the finished structure will be slightly less than 31,000 square feet, she said — smaller than the original site plans first approved in 2003. The design includes glass garage doors that can be raised during heavy rain to allow water to flow through the arena. The south side of the building will include a 118-kilowatt solar panel, and the surrounding land will be replanted with biosoil and native plant species to reduce erosion and runoff into nearby streams.
“This is the antithesis of a warehouse,” Weinig said. “Frankly, I think it will be way more attractive than what’s already there.”
She also disagreed that the new arena would benefit a few riders at the expense of the community. The stable hosts 400 to 450 riders a year through its classes and camps, but it’s also open to the public year-round.
Weinig said Meadowbrook maintains public restrooms and picnic areas at its own expense. The viewing area of the arena will also be open seven days a week, allowing visitors to watch the horses in action.
For the stable, it’s also an economic issue. Over the last three months, Meadowbrook was forced to cancel 13 days of riding because of bad weather, Weinig said. The stable lost $20,000 in 2019 after it was forced to cancel one of its horse shows.
“We have frequent cancellations, and that impacts the horses, the riders, and our budget,” she added. “It’s not our main concern, but in the long-term, an indoor arena is a pretty essential amenity for any riding facility.”
Both Frank and Tobin emphasized that the arena would require input and final approval from multiple agencies, including the Montgomery County Planning Board, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and the county’s Department of Permitting Services.
The NCPC approved the project’s preliminary site development plan and master plan modifications at a Dec. 5 meeting, Weinig said. The Parks Department held an initial community meeting on Jan. 16, but Frank said there would be multiple opportunities for public feedback, including a Planning Board discussion scheduled in March.
Holland remains concerned that the arena would dramatically alter the character of the park for the surrounding community.
Meadowbrook — and the novelty of a horse barn within view of a suburban neighborhood — helped convince him to buy his house almost 20 years ago. But he said a new arena would change the landscape and interrupt the tranquility of the area.
“One neighbor said she teared up, thinking that the space she’s walked past for the last 25 years would be taken up by a warehouse,” Holland said. “This little escape — this piece of the park and stables — is something my neighbors and I have enjoyed. And we don’t want to lose that.”