Standing in the path of Route 43

Proposed road leaves homeowners in limbo

June 13, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

James Withrow has taken his house off the market, Linda Felts may lose her dream home, and Russell Rose is not sure how much longer he will have his backyard vegetable garden.

The neighbors along Bird River Road in the Middle River area are angry that their homes could be demolished because they are in the path of one of five routes proposed for Route 43, a $60 million highway connecting White Marsh with the Middle River corridor.

"Our lives are completely on hold by what the state is doing here," said Felts, 38.

They plan to argue against the highway at a public hearing in Essex on Wednesday night, launch a petition drive and lobby state and county officials to keep the highway from being built.

"This is America, and we've worked all our lives for what we have. You work all your lives for what you have and then the state just comes along and takes it," said Felts. "It's not right."

State and county officials say the four-lane highway connecting Eastern Boulevard to Pulaski Highway will open up some of Baltimore County's last vacant industrially zoned land for development and give the sagging Middle River area a badly needed economic boost.

The number of residents uprooted by the three-mile road will be one of several factors considered when the State Highway Administration decides this fall on the route for the highway, state officials say.

Heather Murphy, SHA project manager, said the proposed route that worries Felts and her neighbors would require buying and demolishing 10 homes, about twice the number of homes that would be demolished along any of the other four proposed routes.

"That's obviously a factor we'll take into consideration," Murphy said.

County officials say they prefer a proposed route east of the Bird River Road homes that would avoid their destruction. That route would provide the best access to about 2,000 acres zoned for business development, the officials say.

But neighbors in the rural pocket of Middle River along Bird River Road -- who have had their properties surveyed and staked out by state highway crews -- question the need for the road.

"Where's the economic benefit of paying to uproot people from their homes?" said Rose.

A county economic development report completed last year says that the highway could attract between 9,600 and 15,000 jobs by connecting White Marsh and Interstate 95 with such economic attractions as the Chesapeake Industrial Park, Glenn L. Martin State Airport, the MARC rail station and the Lockhheed Martin Aerostructures plant.

"It's a key to the economic future of that whole Essex-Middle River area," said Robert L. Hannon, Baltimore County economic development director.

SHA's Murphy said the highway will handle 25,000 to 45,000 vehicles daily and ease congestion on nearby roads. It will be a partial access highway, as is White Marsh Boulevard, meaning there will be intersections with major county roads but no access from driveways, she said.

Felts, who was born and reared in the community, said that there had been talk for years of a new highway across Bird River Road, but that she and her husband were assured when they built their home six years ago that it would not affect her property.

Felts can trace her roots back three generations to the 1900s, when her grandfather bought land along Bird River Road to farm. She gets emotional when she talks about her ties to the land, seeing it as a connection between herself and her father, who died in January.

"My father gave the land to my brother and to me, and in his last days in the hospital, I told him I'm not giving up without a fight," she says, her eyes welling with tears.

Murphy said that along with residents' concerns, the SHA also will weigh each route's potential cost and its impact on wetlands, forests, noise levels and four historic sites -- Chase Elementary School, Ebenezer United Methodist Church, the airport complex and the Middle River Federal Depot.

None of the historic sites will be destroyed by the highway, but the project may mean acquiring land owned by the depot and the airport complex, Murphy said.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger agreed to help fund the state artery with $12 million in county funds last year after a proposal to build a racetrack on the 1,000-acre A. V. Williams property fell through, in part because the roads were insufficient.

Federal Highway Administration approval for the highway is not expected until early next year, Murphy said. Construction is not likely to begin until five years after that and could take two to three years to complete, she said.

Frank Brush, executive director of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, said the time required to build the highway has made it difficult to market the area.

"No developer wanted to wait the five to seven years it would take for the road to be built," Brush said. "It's always been a question of were we going to get a major developer to justify building this road, or were we going to get the road in first."

But residents along River Road say that it could be three years before the state purchases their properties and that it's difficult to plan.

Withrow, who has lived in the community since 1949, said that he and his wife put their house up for sale in April 1998 and planned to move to Hedgesville, W.Va.

But they took the house off the market three weeks later when the SHA notified them about the highway plan.

"We've been on hold ever since," said Withrow, 59, a retired truck driver. "Nobody's going to buy it knowing a highway might come through here."

The SHA public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Kenwood High School in Essex.

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