Ball fields or open space

Issue: County parks officials are caught between proponents of preserving the land's natural beauty and advocates for more recreational facilities.

June 02, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

The future Meadowbrook Park, a hilly parcel of land nestled between U.S. 29 and Route 100 in Ellicott City, is not exactly picturesque.

The view? Cars on the highway.

The sound? Cars on the highway.

Yet this unprepossessing 77-acre plot is the focus of one of the latest battles between nature enthusiasts and recreation fans in Baltimore's suburbs, where populations are growing, vacant land is dwindling and parks are becoming ever more precious.

From Bel Air to Cockeysville to Columbia, residents are clamoring for more ball fields. At the same time, nature lovers are fighting to preserve open space. Both groups say they're losing.

"If you are going to have all this growth, people want recreation," says Mildred F. Kriemelmeyer, president of the Maryland Conservation Council. "But we can't forget that we need the natural areas, too. Wildlife needs it."

Caught in the middle are county officials charged with planning new parks. They're under pressure to accommodate the rapid growth in recreation league sports, especially from girls teams.

"Almost every community that I've talked to has a waiting list for soccer and baseball and lacrosse," says John F. Weber III, director of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.

But as new parks are planned, conflict can intensify when neighbors complain about the traffic, noise and lights from such programs.

In Howard County, the parks department advisory board has approved limited development of Meadowbrook Park -- without lighting that would have increased the use.

Neighbors were happy, but parks director Gary J. Arthur was not. "We do have people coming up to us and saying, `My kids can't get into a Little League program,' " Arthur says.

"We often have baseball and soccer coaches duking it out for field space," says Mike Swartz, president of the Columbia Youth Baseball Association. "Soccer people are given the grassy area, and they try to move into the outfield of a baseball field. You have kids hitting baseballs into the outfield where there are soccer players."

In Baltimore County alone, the number of youths enrolled in lacrosse and soccer programs has nearly doubled in 10 years, says Keene Gooding, assistant director of recreation and parks. From 1988 to last year, he says, youth lacrosse players jumped from 3,983 to 6,780, and soccer players from 11,215 to 19,182. Other counties have seen similar increases.

At the same time, the pressure to reserve open space has been intense. A 1997 study showed that more than 90 percent of Marylanders agree that state and local governments should do more to preserve open areas.

A high-profile debate has centered on Patapsco Valley State Park, where state officials want to pave a milelong, 10-foot-wide trail along the Patapsco River. Supporters say the project would allow more people to enjoy the park, but opponents in bordering Baltimore and Howard counties fear it would dump runoff into the river and destroy the ecosystem.

In Howard County, the County Council decided tentatively in April not to allow lights at an expanded roller hockey rink proposed for Alpha Ridge Park in the western part of the county.

In Anne Arundel County last year, two bog experts protested expansion of Arden Park in Arden on the Severn, saying it would destroy a valuable natural resource. The county backed off, but experts say some ball fields endanger the bog's fragile ecosystem.

And in Montgomery County, debate has been heated over the environmental impact of the 700-acre South Germantown Recreational Park, where soccer fields, a miniature golf course, indoor tennis courts and an indoor aquatic center are proposed.

Some parks directors have begun to grumble about not-in-my-backyard types who want parks in theory -- but not too close.

"This is an age-old issue ," says Rick Barton, superintendent of the State Forest & Parks Service. "You go back to when Yellowstone was first set aside. There were those who wanted to develop it and those who wanted to keep it off-limits."

Kriemelmeyer of the conservation council says legitimate environmental reasons exist to keep parks from being developed.

"Our point of view is that parks created to use natural areas should be left in that condition," she says. "You shouldn't come back in and try to retrofit it with golf courses and ball fields and swimming pools and parking lots and buildings."

Debate and demand are likely to intensify. As Mary Marsh, legislative chairwoman of the Maryland Sierra Club, puts it: "Unless we start controlling the amount of population, I don't know how we are going to solve these issues, because there is only going to be more and more people, and more and more adults and youth wanting to use recreational areas."

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