Park proposal battle rages on

Greenway backers, foes clash over rules for tonight's meeting

July 14, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Alan Stubbs has one thing to tell planners who want to turn the Patapsco Valley State Park and nearby towns into a certified heritage area: You can't call yourself a public, grass-roots organization and then restrict certain people from speaking at meetings.

And John Slater, chairman of the group that wants to revitalize the Patapsco Valley, has one thing to tell Stubbs, an Oella resident, and others who oppose his group: If you acted more civil, meetings about the proposed Patapsco Heritage Greenway wouldn't be so tightly controlled.

The two sides are at it again: those who want to see a greenway that would link the treasures of the park and surrounding towns and those who think the trail networks and marketing campaigns would cause crowding and imperil the area's environment and charm.

This time, the two groups are fighting over the structure of tonight's Greater Oella Community Association meeting at the Westchester Community Center in Oella. The greenway will be the topic of discussion.

The last meeting, in May, attracted an audience of about 130 and got so heated that people were shouting and calling each other names.

Slater said his group agreed to return to answer questions only if Oella community members agreed to act in a civil manner.

"When they get to name-calling and acting like a bunch of animals, then we're out of there," he said.

But in an effort to maintain control, Stubbs thinks someone -- whether it's greenway planners or the Oella community association's board, or both -- went overboard.

Late last week, Stubbs and hundreds of other Oella residents received newsletters from the Oella association informing them that the bimonthly community meeting would be organized differently. The newsletter said a panel of greenway supporters would answer questions, and a "disinterested" moderator would screen questions.

It also said that "no lobbying or persuasive speech-making will be permitted."

Stubbs says it's unfair that greenway supporters at the meeting will be permitted to answer all the questions, and opponents won't be given ample time to give speeches. And he notes that the "disinterested" third party -- lawyer and former Baltimore County Councilman John V. Murphy -- has expressed at least limited support for the greenway.

Stubbs says planners are "attempting to stack the deck in order to allow you to hear only what they want you to hear."

Slater did not deny Murphy's support for at least part of the greenway plans, but he said "nobody is disinterested."

The dispute goes to the heart of a debate that has troubled the Patapsco Heritage Greenway Planning Committee for months: How public is the group? And what gives it the right to take charge of the future of the Patapsco Valley?

Technically, the planning committee is part of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, a private, nonprofit group. But Slater claims the greenway committee is a public group because it holds open meetings and allows community representatives to sit on the committee.

But, greenway opponents say, community representatives are outnumbered by self-appointed, ad hoc planning committee members, some of whom do not live in the Patapsco Valley. Noncommittee members have been typically allowed to give input only during the last five minutes of meetings.

"The whole group gets limited to five minutes at the end," says Lee Walker Oxenham, an activist who lives in Ellicott City and opposes the greenway project on environmental grounds. "If the meetings were truly open, you wouldn't have five minutes at the end of the meeting to talk."

Oxenham said much of the problem lies in the history of the project. Planners worked on it for four years while much of the public was unaware of what was going on. When planners revealed their greenway proposals last fall, the public felt left out.

"So much went on behind closed doors, and the people were presented with this plan," said Oxenham. She said that for a project like this to succeed, "you've got to get them involved from the beginning."

Steven Soifer, an associate professor of social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, agrees with Oxenham. He said it was a mistake for a group of self-appointed planners with "no inherent authority" to make plans for the valley without involving residents.

Even though they allow community representatives on the board, Soifer said, the original planners have not relinquished control.

"It's like giving a board seat for General Motors to a worker so they have a voice, but they do not have any power," Soifer said, calling it "a little bit more than tokenism."

"I can understand why people who are living in the area who show up to these meetings are livid. My advice to this group is to resign their positions and to turn it over to the community."

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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