No stopping quest for berm

Resident determined to find dirt, money for sound barrier

May 20, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

This is a story of determination and dirt -- 100,000 cubic yards of it.

It begins more than two years ago in a neighborhood alongside Route 32 in Columbia's River Hill village, where Karen Bellamy has a house that is satisfyingly suburban in every way except one: She can hear the constant rumble of speeding cars and 18-wheeler trucks on the four-lane highway just across Morning Time Lane.

When the State Highway Administration said it wasn't responsible -- and wouldn't pay for sound walls or dirt for an earth berm to help mitigate the noise -- Bellamy decided to take the matter up herself.

The 40-year-old mother of two began searching for dirt. Lots of dirt. Enough dirt so the state could build a barrier about 10 feet high and 500 feet long between the road and the neighborhood residences.

"She was particularly interested in trying to come up with a solution," says Charles Adams, director of environmental design for the SHA. "It's the first time in my recollection that somebody's taken that on in the community."

Says Bellamy: "They obviously didn't think that I was going to pursue this."

On her way home from work or between errands, Bellamy, a software engineer, visited local construction sites and sought out the construction managers.

"I'm not interested in a house," she would explain. "I just wanted to know if you had any extra dirt."

One site was willing to donate 25,000 cubic yards -- more than enough to do the job. Then, a few phone calls later, Bellamy rounded up Haverhill Contracting Co., a Dundalk contractor that was in the process of disposing of 1 million excess cubic yards from a state project.

Bellamy called Adams to tell him about the dirt, thinking she had solved the problem.

But she hadn't: The state wouldn't pay the cost of hauling it.

By the time she learned that, the contractor had had to dispose of the dirt elsewhere because of time constraints. Bellamy was back where she started -- frustrated with a bureaucracy she thought was giving her the run-around and without any earth.

Until one day a few months ago, when she pulled into her driveway and found a business card tucked in the front door.

"Hi! I am the one you spoke to about the sound berm @ Rt. 32," it read in pencil on the back. "Please call me. I may have an idea."

Blaine Leidy, president of Haverhill Contracting, told Bellamy he was bidding on a project in the River Hill area and might have 100,000 cubic yards of dirt to donate to her cause. If he did, he said, he would be willing to haul it, dump it and shape it into a noise-mitigating mound -- hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work -- free.

He set one condition: Someone else would have to pay the other costs associated with the project, which included re-engineering the drainage system, uprooting and replanting trees and the temporary removal of a fence along the roadway.

"I'm thinking, minimal cost [to the state], give me a break," recalls Bellamy.

Not knowing whether the issue had been resolved, Bellamy and her family headed off to Florida in February for a weeklong vacation at Walt Disney World.

Well, sort of. Bellamy took with her, in her personal planner, the telephone numbers of all the parties she had been working with on the berm issue: SHA, the contractor and Republican state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, whose district contains the western edge of Columbia (and whose office also had made inquiries about securing dirt, to no avail).

Bellamy placed calls from her hotel room, or wherever she could, including from a pay phone outside the Magic Kingdom.

At one point, Bellamy says, an "upbeat" voice mail message from Adams left her under the impression that SHA was agreeing to cover the extra costs associated with the project -- which, according to state estimates, would be several thousand dollars.

"I was on a high for the rest of the night," Bellamy says.

The high wore off at an Orlando Waffle House the next day. Speaking on her husband's cell phone from the privacy of the women's restroom, Bellamy learned that Leidy had heard the state wasn't going to finance any part of the project.

The vacation wasn't much fun after that. "It was a long drive back," says Bellamy's husband, Bill, who has attended countless public meetings and written countless letters to federal, state and local officials about the Route 32 noise issue.

Not much has changed since that February trip. The state is still willing to allow the berm to be built on its right-of-way, but won't put up any money because the road had been approved before the houses were built, Adams says.

Neither will Howard County, according to McCabe.

Haverhill Contracting Co. remains willing to help with the dirt, but the 100,000 cubic yards in question has become unavailable: Leidy found a place to dump it closer to the construction site, which will cost him less in the long run.

"Dirt isn't expensive unless you have it and don't want it, or you need it and don't have it," he says.

Karen Bellamy knows the truth in that. These days, her blood pressure is up. The best medicine might be a berm.

"We're not dropping it," she says.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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