Howard encounters bumps in the road

Pebbles from paving work draw resident complaints

September 14, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A money-saving form of street repaving was halted this week after scores of complaints from Howard County residents.

Although the dispute seems like the basic nuts and bolts of suburban life, it shows again the financial stress in prosperous Howard County, where growth has added 32 percent to the population since 1990.

Straining to put aside money for more classrooms and teachers, the county cut back on resurfacing, opting for a cheaper method that spreads a thin layer of tar and stones that takes weeks to settle.

"Some [housing] developments have a certain expectation of the quality of the roads," County Executive James N. Robey said yesterday. But complaints have been accumulating, he said, "like a snowball rolling down a mountainside."

For residents, the problem is irritating.

"It throws off a lot of little pebbles. It gets in the grass and in the driveway, and it throws off a lot of little stones when you're cutting the grass," said 78-year old Francis J. Koenig, who has lived on Southview Road in Ellicott City for 42 years.

"It was a nice road. I don't know why they repaved it."

His neighbor Frances Cole persuaded more than 70 people in her area to sign a petition against the new method and recruited County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, to the cause.

"My suggestion is that the county executive, the council and the man that's in charge of this put it on their street," Cole said. "We have these teeny stones. We have a paraplegic in the neighborhood" who is afraid to risk his wheelchair tires on the sharp stones. Others fear scratching the paint on their cars, she said.

"This is the kind of road you put on a horse farm," Cole said, adding that she wants crews to come back and do the job again, with smooth paving.

The disputed method is called microsurfacing, according to county Department of Public Works Director James M. Irvin, and is key to the county's efforts to catch up with long-neglected street repaving.

"We've used it for a number of years," he said, noting that he has $3.2 million to use for repaving this year, compared with $5.2 million last year.

Although some residents say their streets didn't appear to need a new surface, Irvin said his department did a survey of the county. Without it, the older roads will break up, he said, and that can happen quickly. Then repairs are much more expensive.

Microsurfacing gives a street seven years more life -- about half the 15 years repaving does -- for one-third the cost, he said.

The order to stop work will prevent the resurfacing of a few streets around the county, Irvin said.

"We've pretty much finished" for the season, he said. County officials will re-examine their options during the winter.

But Merdon said he's considering a resolution to permanently block microsurfacing on cul-de-sacs, which he contends are harder to resurface.

After more than 20 years in public works, the soft-spoken Irvin said he's used to gripes.

"We get complaints about everything we do," he said.

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