Hellish Frustration by Heavenly Waters


June 05, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

United they rant, divided they bawl.

the Irish eyes on Emerald Drive are not smiling. Nor do they steal our hearts away.

To close or not to close this blessed plot, that is the question. (Have we mangled enough familiar lines yet?)

This neighborhood battle royal near Bel Air is over a 40-yard strip of road connecting a community called Watervale in the south with Brentwood Park in the north.

Emerald Drive was originally a dead-end at the northern edge of the luxurious Watervale development, which began construction nearly 20 years ago across from Heavenly Waters Park. Eight years ago, the popularly priced Brentwood Park development was laid out with a main north-south road planned to connect to Emerald Drive in the south.

Watervale residents objected to the Brentwood Park "concept plan" to open up Emerald. The county said they could not block a "concept," only an actual construction plan.

As a compromise, the connection to Emerald from the Brentwood community was eventually allowed only via a couple of short dogleg turns, to discourage most through traffic.

The short connecting portion of Emerald was made one-way northbound three years ago to assuage Watervale concerns; Brentwood residents protested that restriction.

The one-way designation frustrated law-abiding motorists, who could not travel south from Brentwood on Emerald Drive to reach Tollgate Road. But cars coming south from Brentwood regularly violated the traffic restriction, adding to the Watervale unhappiness over increased traffic flow and hazardous driving on the circuitous route.

Frayed tempers and littered lawns are the results of the traffic tiff.

The matter finally came before the Harford County Council for a political solution to an impossible situation, after the engineers had tried and failed for years to accommodate both sides.

For three hours last month, the council listened to complaints of children in danger, lack of sidewalks, narrow streets, nighttime drivers without headlights, nonsensical detours, speeding motorists, hazardous curves and perilous road grading.

The process began when the Watervale community asked the county's Road Closing Committee to block the Emerald Drive connection. The committee held a public hearing in March, then voted to close that section, a verdict that automatically goes to the council for final decision.

"The communities have been at war, and nobody trusts the Department of Public Works anymore," said Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, who supports the road closing. "It's been handled badly for years."

The Department of Public Works disagrees, maintaining that accidents, traffic counts, vehicle speeds and pedestrian numbers do not justify closing the short connector. Rather, the ,, road could be opened to two-way traffic. The agency's testimony to the road closing committee did not analyze the frequency of one-way violations on Emerald.

Adding to this controversy are two safety studies by outside engineers, made before and after the one-way opening, that recommended closing Emerald Drive.

The latest one, by A-E Group Inc. of Owings Mills, was commissioned by Public Works, which used the consultant report to justify more county road projects while neglecting to disclose that A-E had recommended that Emerald be closed.

What is clear from the short, troubled history of the road is that county authorities have been ambivalent in addressing the controversy.

The current problem began when the original plat of Watervale allowed for a future extension of Emerald, long before the first earth was turned for Brentwood Park.

The Brentwood Park concept of a north-south route connecting with Emerald was OK'd (because Emerald was tagged for eventual extension), then modified for the indirect connection. That didn't work; the connection of Emerald was made one-way, which also didn't work.

At some point much earlier, a firm decision should have been made on either extending or closing northern Emerald, instead of dancing around the matter and tinkering with make-do adjustments. The decision should have been fully justified by traffic/engineering study. The 800 homes in Brentwood Park should have been provided with access to safe and adequate county roads, in any case, and assured emergency-vehicle access to the 45 Watervale homes.

It's a good argument for better planning -- and firm enforcement. And for strong Adequate Public Facilities laws covering roads and streets. And for a straightforward public hearing process that allows residents to challenge "concept plans" legally before they become actual construction plans.

The political resolution at this point will leave a lot of voters angry. If Emerald Drive is closed, many Brentwood residents will chafe at having to drive considerably out of their way to reach access roads. If open, Watervale residents will cringe at the dangers of added traffic along Emerald, which has no sidewalks.

Oh yes, and the county recently closed Tollgate Road, the main southern access route for both neighborhoods to U.S. 1, near Emerald Drive.

So most residents now have to take the onerous Red Pump-Vale roads detour to get to Bel Air. Is there a pattern developing here, of county Public Works trying to make everyone unhappy?

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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