Covenant Park hearing is crucial for SAC/HC

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

September 09, 2001|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

ONE OF the most important public meetings in terms of amateur sports in Howard County since the mid-1990s' lean-budget years is to occur in Ellicott City on Thursday night. That's the Board of Appeals hearing on Covenant Park, the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County's proposed 10-field complex off Centennial Lane, roughly opposite Centennial Park.

The 7:30 p.m. session in the county government's George Howard Building will be a go/no-go moment for SAC/HC, which began thinking a decade ago about building fields. The organization raised its fees, squirreled away money and announced last year its land acquisition and plans.

With Board of Appeals approval Thursday night, SAC/HC would be free to start pushing dirt toward a Memorial Day 2003 opening.

Rejection or even delay by someone taking whatever the Board of Appeals decides into Circuit Court would weigh a ton, not only for SAC/HC but for all amateur sports groups in the county. All have enough problems finding quality fields for their legions.

Some criticism has emerged, predictable given that almost anything to do with parks, ball fields - any recreation facility - sprouts hysterical opponents. But the opposition seems to be coming from a few individuals who told the Planning Board last month that SAC/HC never talked with them, despite the fact that the organization began wooing others and community groups in the area more than a year ago.

Vocal opponents who don't want something built don't alone warrant Board of Appeals concurrence, however, because of strictures on what information the Board of Appeals can weigh before voting - mainly, whether a proposed change in how acreage is used complies with zoning regulations.

SAC/HC needs what is called a special exception to existing rural zoning, and those regulations permit athletic fields on rural land. Covenant Park has received unanimous Planning Board approval, although that is not binding on the politically appointed, five-member appeals panel.

Wisely hedging its bet, SAC/HC is calling for 500 backers to show up Thursday night from its ranks. Frankly, every single amateur sports group in this county should have someone there to speak in support, although that would constitute a rare, if not unique, show of solidarity.

"We cannot be complacent about approval; there is some opposition," SAC/HC says on its Web site about the hearing. "We need to show the county administration, politicians, and the community that there is overwhelming support for this complex."

Indeed, support exists. And while this hearing doesn't exactly parallel in terms of political vibes what, say, a school board or County Council session would engender, those in local politics still should count the potential votes represented by Thursday night's audience, and not dismiss those in attendance as just a few squeaky wheels.

The proposal before the appeals board is this: SAC/HC wants to build 10 soccer fields, three pavilions, a concession/facilities building and parking for 600 vehicles on 46 acres of what has been farmland on the west side of Centennial Lane. No public money will be needed.

Covenant Baptist Church, which has owned the land since 1992, sold the acreage to SAC/HC and has plans of its own for a new sanctuary on the 52-acre site that are not part of Thursday's hearing. SAC/HC and the church would share some of the parking. Four fields would be lighted. The soccer club has agreed to tweaks that would address planners' technical concerns about traffic, lights and noise.

County planners reviewing the proposal concluded that "on a visual basis alone, the use of the playing fields would not be readily noticeable from Centennial Lane or much of the surrounding area even at high intensity levels."

Because of the planned turf quality SAC/HC would use the fields for competition, not practice. The organization, which with about 6,000 players is easily the county's largest amateur sports group, still would need to use fields maintained by county schools and the recreation department for some league play and practices. Covenant Park, though, would ease the pressure on those facilities.

Bottom line: Covenant Park, a first-of-a-kind facility in metro Baltimore, would be important for thousands ... as well as an asset for Howard County. It would be not only a showpiece but also a money-maker benefiting public and business bank accounts.

Fall sports participants, coaches, parents, leaders: We'd like to hear from you about interesting people, incidents, issues involving your teams. Don't be shy. Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or address e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com. And, please, put us on your mailing list.

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