County withdraws rail-trail bill but promises reintroduction

April 23, 1995|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

The county has withdrawn a bill to create a six-mile hiking, biking and equestrian trail along the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad bed.

But Rehrmann administration officials say they will hold public meetings on the proposed trail and resurrect the bill before the County Council.

Robert Hockaday, director of government and community relations, said a revised bill would be reintroduced "in the next few months" and that a $709,000 federal grant through the State Highway Administration, which would be used to pay for the trail, would not be lost.

"We have every intention of continuing our pursuit of this trail," said Joseph Pfaff, parks and recreation director. "But given the high degree of input, pro and con, so far, we feel there needs to be more discussion on the subject in public."

The administration withdrew the bill Tuesday before a scheduled vote by the seven-member council that evening. The bill would have required the county to match the federal grant with support in the form of in-kind services, land contributions and parkland construction money.

The trail was proposed by parks and recreation officials as the Ma and Pa Heritage Corridor, to run from the Equestrian Center on Tollgate Road in Bel Air to Friends Park in Forest Hill.

About 63 percent of the railroad bed in the six-mile stretch lies on private property, and use of the section would require permission from 20 property owners, said Katherine Adams, a county landscape architect acting as the project's manager. The remainder of the trail would run over property or roads controlled by the county, the state or Bel Air.

Before closing the Maryland portion of the line in 1958, the 77-mile Ma and Pa connected Baltimore and York, Pa. Twenty-six miles was in Harford County, running from Gunpowder Falls State Park through Bel Air and north to Pennsylvania.

Several residents opposed the trail at a public hearing last month, complaining of potential noise, crowds and destruction of property.

Most of the opposition was from people who live near the old railroad bed but outside the six-mile proposed trail, but their fears heightened concern among some council members, who also questioned the cost and parking availability.

The plan was scaled down in the past two weeks to a 1 1/2 -mile leg in Bel Air, running in a zigzag fashion from Tollgate road to the Liriodendron museum and involving only public rights of way.

Some council members opposed those amendments, saying the shortened trail would not adequately serve bike riders and still would cost too much. Their plan to kill the bill failed.

Last week, Councilman Mitch Shank tried to revive interest in the original six-mile leg, lobbying council members with last-minute documents of support from adjacent landowners, developers and the town of Bel Air. But he couldn't garner the necessary four votes before Council President Joanne Parrott withdrew support for a trail of any length Tuesday afternoon and asked the administration to withdraw the bill.

At the previous week's council meeting, Mrs. Parrott had supported the amended bill to shorten the trail, saying, "I think we need to start somewhere." On Tuesday, however, she issued a memo to council members saying, "I have encouraged the administration to withdraw Bill 95-13 tonight and to begin the process anew."

Mr. Hockaday said public meetings in the communities along the Ma and Pa line would be set up in the next two months and that a public meeting open to all county residents would be held before the new bill was drafted.

Mr. Pfaff said the $709,000 grant would be secure for at least eight more months if the county continued to work on the proposal. "We have been assured by the state that the money will be there," he said.

He said he thought most of the opposition grew out of "fear that the six-mile trail was just a stepping stone to something much larger."

When the proposal was announced, planners did reveal hopes that the trail eventually might run the 26 miles of the old railroad through Harford, but county officials now say there is little likelihood of funds to pay for more than six miles.

"This is a doable segment," said administration spokesman George Harrison. "It's highly unlikely the trail will ever go the whole 26 miles."

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