Time for appeals board to take action and OK plans for Covenant Park

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

September 16, 2001|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

SCORELESS AT the break and ugly. That's a soccer analogy summing up Thursday's Board of Appeals hearing on Covenant Park, the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County's proposed 10-field complex roughly opposite Centennial Park.

The evening resembled what soccer fans might recognize as one of those occasional games in which disorganized, outgunned players - "team" doesn't apply here - manage to frustrate a foe by stalling, kicking balls away, and displaying general ignorance while officials bend over backward to be fair.

Bottom line: Decision day for Covenant Park slipped 2 1/2 months - until Nov. 29, at least. It had seemed that Thursday night might be time enough. Yet disorganized, ill-informed opponents and officials' tolerance left SAC/HC with five more witnesses to testify, said David Carney, the group's zoning-savvy lawyer.

Starting nearly 25 minutes late for no apparent reason, Thursday's hearing in the County Council chamber snagged immediately when the very few opponents - 13 signed up as opposed versus 176 as supporting SAC/HC's plans - were asked by board Chairman Robert C. Sharps to designate a spokesman.

During a five-minute recess that became 10 minutes, they agreed on Centennial-area lawyer David Kinsley. He noted in his opening that not only was he drafted and not being paid, he was not all that familiar with the proposal - except that, personally, he believed any development would lead to bigger things.

Kinsley said he had not attended last month's Planning Board session on Covenant Park. That was the session in which the proposal, after weeks of Planning Department review, got unanimous approval - nonbinding, though, on the appeals board, the last administrative hurdle before construction can begin.

For the next 2 1/2 hours, fed questions slipped to him on pieces of paper by other opponents, Kinsley lobbed flak at many points made by SAC/HC President James Carlan and private traffic engineer Mickey Cornelius.

Samples:

What guarantee would the public have that the soccer complex would not ultimately be developed into other uses? No one in officialdom replied the obvious, that the land is rural-conservation acreage on which, by law, very limited development can occur, although athletic fields and churches are permissible. Covenant Baptist Church, which is selling the land to SAC/HC, will lease part of it back for a new sanctuary.

What kind of sign would be on Centennial Lane, roughly opposite Centennial Park? That chatter persisted for many minutes until Sharps pointed out that the county's sign law would apply and, besides, the appeals board didn't consider such things.

Mightn't fertilizers used on the soccer fields be an environmental threat to Centennial Park? Answers reside with a SAC/HC witness who did not get to testify Thursday. And, as Carlan pointed out, stringent state and federal regulations apply.

For more than an hour, traffic was the topic, Kinsley largely reflecting concerns of six Maxine Street attendees who say turning into Centennial Lane traffic is dangerous. Maxine Street is on the opposite side of Centennial Lane, a bit more than a football field north of Covenant Park's proposed entrance.

Traffic consultant Cornelius, a frequent appeals board witness for clients and unflappable in his data and analysis, said several times that Maxine Street's situation may warrant county government attention but was irrelevant to Covenant Park.

Using traffic counts accumulated last October and this June, Cornelius said Covenant Park's expected traffic at peak usage would not have significant impact on Maxine Street or, of far wider interest, the closest major intersections on Centennial Lane, Route 108 and Old Annapolis Road.

Average Centennial Lane traffic on Saturday-game days, he said, might rise slightly, enough to equal comparable flow during weekdays - but nothing near rush-hour numbers. And service at other times would easily remain at acceptable levels.

Kinsley, to his credit, did leave alone an Ellicott Mills Middle School girl who, speaking for players, testified that they want Covenant Park's soccer-only fields. Why? Because among other things, Sarah Gregorini said, school and rec-and-parks fields being used now for games are sometimes in such bad condition they can cause injuries.

About 11:25 p.m., when Sharps scheduled the hearing's continuation for Nov. 20, Kinsley replied that he could not be present - too near Thanksgiving. Laughter rippled through the room.

Halftime observations for both sides:

Hang in there, SAC/HC. What you want to build will be a county asset. Also, as one source in your organization pointed out, six of your players live on Maxine Street.

For opponents, just do your homework, please. Gads, so much of this stuff has been public for so long. Drop the cynicism and paranoia. Learn about SAC/HC, a 30-year-old, nonprofit group that serves 6,000 children. Get the Planning Department's analysis of SAC/HC's proposal. And link up with the Centennial community group that has been working with SAC/HC for maybe a year. Democracy is a wonderful thing, folks. But talk is cheap. And you got your money's worth Thursday night.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or address e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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