The County Council has asked Parks and Recreation officials to take another look at their proposal for a six-mile-long hiking, biking and equestrian trail along the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad bed after several questions raised at a public hearing Tuesday went unanswered.
"I think too much is still vague about this proposal, including parking plans and how those dollars will be spent," said Council President Joanne Parrott as the hearing drew to a close. "There are too many weak links here to even think about approving this now."
But County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who asked the council to transfer capital project money from acquisitions to development to match a federal grant, says she will not withdraw her request.
"Mrs. Rehrmann is very interested in working this out. All those questions are answerable, and we intend to make the information available to the council and the details known," George Harrison, administration spokesman, said late last week.
The council has until April 27 to approve the funding request. If the bill is not voted on by then, it automatically dies. Without providing matching funds, the county cannot secure the $709,000 federal grant, Mr. Harrison said, although the executive can resubmit her request at a later date.
The county plans to build the first leg of what would be known as the Ma and Pa Heritage Corridor from Heavenly Waters Park on Tollgate Road in Bel Air to Friends Park in Forest Hill.
The trail eventually would stretch 26 miles through Harford County from the Gunpowder Falls State Park on the Baltimore County border to the Pennsylvania line, following the rail bed of the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, which ceased operations in 1958.
About 10 percent of the first leg would be on county-owned land. The rest of the rail bed is now on private property.
Parks and Recreation Director Joseph Pfaff told the council that 15 of the 20 property owners involved in the first leg tentatively have agreed to grant easements to the county for the 10-foot-wide trail. The trail would be constructed of "stone dust," which is fine stone formed into a hard surface suitable for walking or bike riding.
However, some residents who live near the rail bed but outside the proposed first leg objected to the proposal at the hearing, saying it would bring excessive traffic to their neighborhoods on weekends and noisy "tourists" to their back yards.
Council members had their own concerns.
Councilman Mitch Shank wondered about the amount of the county's liability if someone were hurt on the trail, the cost of trail maintenance and who would provide security.
E. J. Hornick, president of the Ma & Pa Heritage Foundation, said that planners were hoping volunteers could be used to handle some of the maintenance and that security needs had not been detailed. He said planners had considered creating a volunteer program similar to the State Highway Administration's Adopt-A-Road program for trail maintenance.
Councilwoman Veronica Chenowith wondered if the county might end up spending more than expected to obtain necessary easements or to redraw the trail where easements were unavailable.
Mrs. Parrott said that she feared that officials had not planned for parking adequate for large numbers of recreational users and that she would like to have seen a map of the proposed trail.
Mr. Pfaff said about $200,000 had been estimated for surveying and title work to secure rights of way, but that the figure could grow. He also said only one homeowner had requested a fence behind his property, but others might later demand that fences be erected at county expense.
"We're going to follow the rail bed as closely as we can, but we realize that not all easements will be available and in some cases we'll have to go around them," said Bill Nicodemus, chief of parks and facilities, after the hearing.
"We have no intention of going through the middle of a community of houses. We'll have to go around the entire community. We're working out those details now," he said.
Officials told the council that they have tentative plans for three visitor parking areas -- in Bel Air and Forest Hill -- but some residents who testified said an existing parking area near Friends Park in Forest Hill already is crowded.
Planners also said that about 15 small footbridges would have to be built as part of the trail, but they were uncertain how much that would add to the project's cost.
Mr. Harrison said the administration would have details for the council, including a map of the proposed first leg of the trail, in time for it to consider the bill and to vote on the funding request.
"We think it's a good plan and it's not going to be dropped," he said.