When James Carlan closes his eyes and thinks about the future, he sees soccer balls blasted across blue skies. He sees wide-open fields with freshly cut grass, smiling 12-year-old strikers running sprints while soccer moms and soccer dads ignite the sidelines with cheers.
But in the present there are still zoning rules, traffic concerns and piles of paperwork between him and his dream of a 10-field soccer complex in Ellicott City, on Columbia's northern edge.
Carlan, the president of Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County, said Monday that an agreement has been reached with Covenant Baptist Church to pay as much as $1.5 million for 52.4 acres near Centennial Park to create the complex.
The agreement appears to end a decade-long quest to find a site to construct tournament-quality soccer fields for SAC-HC.
With nearly 6,000 members, the association has for several years had to juggle schedules, hold tournaments elsewhere and share area fields with lacrosse and football.
"It's just the perfect location," Carlan said of the Covenant Baptist site. "We really couldn't ask for a better place than this one."
The site on Centennial Lane was purchased in 1993 by Covenant Baptist Church, which at one time proposed senior housing for the site. Neighbors, who strongly opposed that plan, appear to be much happier with the idea of soccer fields, which they say are consistent with the area around Centennial Park.
They're also pleased that the church and soccer association met with them last month to explain the proposal and listen to concerns about parking and traffic.
"It's been an open discussion this time and that's what has been important," said Alice Webb, who lives near the site. "Everyone wants to work together to find the best solution."
Centennial Lane is heavily traveled, and residents worry about extra cars because of tournaments and practices. But they don't expect as much traffic, day in and day out, as senior housing might have generated.
"We, as a group, feel this is a better plan," said Elaine Ireland, co-chairwoman of Centennial Citizens for Responsible Development, which formed in 1998 in response to the housing proposal.
"They came to us before the deal was inked, which I thought was very positive," she added.
Cindy Feinstein, a member of the Centennial citizens group, said that made her feel more comfortable about the prospect of developing the land.
"I'm confident that they know where our concerns are and they'll do their best to [address] them," she said.
One of those concerns will be lights. The tennis courts in Centennial Park have lights that cause some irritation for residents, and SAC-HC plans to have some type of lighting for the field.
"The lights are on until around 11 o'clock, and they shine right into our bedroom," Webb said. "We've been told the soccer fields won't have lights like the ones at the tennis court."
Carlan said SAC-HC is considering lights that are closer to the field, to ease residents' concerns.
"The technology of lights has advanced so much I think we'll be able to find something that will work for everyone," he said.
The next step is to get Howard County to approve a zoning exception for the site so SAC-HC can level the rolling farmland and the fields of corn growing there, making room for 10 fields, a central restroom and a 500-vehicle parking lot. Carlan said the association should get a zoning hearing this year, and the club hopes to break ground in spring and begin play in fall 2002.
County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said it shouldn't be too difficult for SAC-HC to get a special exception for the land, which is zoned rural. He said the Board of Appeals will look at the impact of traffic, dust, noise and lights on the neighborhood.
"Traffic is the biggest issue," he said.
Rutter added that he thinks this use for the land is far better than the 1998 proposal for 103 housing units for the elderly.
The complex would be a blessing for a Howard County soccer community hungry for quality fields for its thousands of players, Carlan said.
"It's not so much quantity as it is quality," Carlan said. "We operate on 30 fields now, at every elementary school, middle school, parks and rec field we can find. You name a school, we're there.
"But football, lacrosse and soccer all share those fields, so they never really get a chance to rest," Carlan said. "When we build the new site, we'll have irrigation, which is wonderful. At a public school, if you have a drought in the summer, you're finished."
Gary J. Arthur, director of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, said the complex should help ease a shortage of playing fields in the county. "It should loosen up the soccer situation pretty good," he said.
Carlan said most of the fields in the complex would be reserved for games only, allowing the grass to be kept short and the field in the best possible shape for kids trying to learn fundamentals of the game.
"Some of the fields we play on have tufts or clumps of grass that make it really hard to teach kids the passing game," he said.
Carlan said the agreement is further evidence of how popular soccer has become in Howard County and the nation.
"If you take a look around, soccer is everywhere," he said. "More and more communities nearby are investing in soccer fields. We start kids as young as 4 years old, and our adult leagues are very popular. It's everywhere."
Sun staff writers Jamie Smith Hopkins and Alice Lukens contributed to this article.