Putting resident input first

Advice: Spurred by anger over park proposals, Howard County plans to seek more public involvement.

April 24, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like hidden, sensitive land mines, the carefully laid park development plans of Howard County recreation officials have exploded in their faces in recent years.

But things will soon change, they say.

Stung by opposition to proposed improvements, despite the clamor for more play spaces, county recreation officials have decided to change the way they plan parks, abandoning expensive consultants in favor of more and earlier involvement from residents.

The contention over parks, including Meadowbrook, Alpha Ridge and Western Regional, resonates in the minds of county recreation director Gary J. Arthur and Ken Alban, his capital planner.

Convinced that they had scrupulously followed public notification procedures, they were rocked by opposition to ideas such as lighted fields, covered roller hockey rinks, large picnic pavilions and small amphitheaters.

In each case, after spending more than $50,000 for consultants to plan facilities they thought the public wanted, they were forced back to the proverbial -- and literal -- drawing board.

"It was our experience in the last two years that things basically disintegrated," Arthur said recently.

Plans prepared for the 160-acre Western Regional Park drew more than 300 people to a meeting in January to protest features that might attract large crowds of people or compete with private businesses in the area.

Two weeks after that meeting, County Executive James N. Robey announced that he would scale back the plans, eliminating a proposed amphitheater and a 300-person picnic pavilion.

"I think we sometimes do things as they've always been done," Arthur said. "We thought we did a good job trying to reach the people. We thought we had a fair representation. Obviously, we didn't."

Part of Arthur's frustration is the knowledge that only 12 percent of the county's parkland is developed, and with the population growing, the demand for more playing fields, roller hockey rinks and picnic pavilions could be met more rapidly if more lighted facilities and larger, active-use features were available.

But with planning for the next large park -- the 300-acre Blandair facility in Columbia -- awaiting a court decision, Arthur isn't looking for another setback.

Starting now, he said, county officials will go to the community and County Council members first, work out which specific features a park should and draw up a plan using county staff -- not consultants.

Robey approves of the change.

"Why go though all this with a consultant if no one wants it?" he said.

People who have criticized county parks plans also approve.

"I think it's an excellent idea," said Richard Ely, president of the Columbia Hills/Meadowbrook Farm Community Association, which borders the county's Meadowbrook Park along U.S. 29 near Route 100 in Ellicott City.

When planning intensive-use, lighted facilities at Meadowbrook, Ely said, officials "polled the community three or four years before the plan came in," but only to learn if the general idea of a park was acceptable.

When the details of a consultant's plan were presented, "it came as a huge shock to us," he said.

By involving the community first, "they would have saved themselves a lot of money up front," Ely said.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, the Ellicott City Republican who helped sponsor a residents committee to resolve differences over the Meadowbrook Park plan, agreed.

"I think the old way of planning parks left people with a feeling that government was forcing unwanted services down their throats. The new approach gives people a chance to get involved in the beginning stages."

In Glenwood, where the 190-acre Western Regional Park is, businessmen who helped lead the opposition are glad to hear of the changed strategy.

"This is the first I've heard of it, but anything that the county does with respect to planning has got to be an improvement over the current system," said Randall Nixon, whose family-owned farm, banquet hall and picnic grounds on Route 32 are a few miles from Glenwood.

"The assumption is that a park or any kind of public amenity is desirable, but that paradigm is changing. I sense a real hostility," Nixon said. Because of that, "it's important that you invest people very early in the planning."

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a west county Republican who represents Glenwood, also likes Arthur's new approach.

"It makes sense to me. I think it's a good idea."

But changing the process doesn't mean all will go smoothly.

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat whose district includes Blandair, said he is leery of "too many ball fields and other things like that. I'm not for funneling all the people into Columbia's parks," he said.

Richard Kain, owner of Triumph Health and Fitness Center on Carr's Mill Road near Western Regional Park, said he believes the county is too intent on raising money with heavily used recreational facilities.

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