Soccer-complex session Tuesday may be the finale

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

January 06, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

PICKING UP where we left off just before Christmas: The Board of Appeals marathon hearing that began in September on the proposed Covenant Park soccer complex should, finally, reach a go or no-go vote something after 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.

One of five board members missed the last session, on Dec. 18. Then, one member that night got crossways with two others over what lines painted on a road mean, a traffic expert's competence, not to mention the board's role in all of this. The chairman wavered during the session, perhaps bought temporary peace with a nonbinding "nay" that knotted a straw vote, 2-2, and thus, we have Tuesday's apparent finale.

Here's hoping that board members - who constitute the last administrative hurdle before, potentially, this whole thing lands in court - rested well during the holidays and return to their sensibilities Tuesday. Because this isn't a difficult case - or it shouldn't be.

Essentially, the law requires board members to evaluate Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County's proposal on criteria mainly concerning noise, lighting, traffic and its mesh with adjoining property uses, the acreage's zoning and the county's General Plan. From comments Dec. 18, four members already agree the 10-field complex the SAC/HC wants to build on Centennial Lane, roughly opposite Centennial Park, satisfies all but one fragment of those touchstones.

In fact, Covenant Park's existence would address one major concern expressed in the overriding General Plan: the relative lack of "active recreation" areas relative to the county's population.

But board members snagged Dec. 18 over whether proposed acceleration, deceleration and turning lanes would provide the required "safe access" to Covenant Park.

The only expert testimony board members heard was that turns in any direction because of Covenant Park's projected traffic would be safe. The traffic expert testified, several times, in fact, that even with Covenant Park operating at full tilt on a worst-case scenario, resulting flows on Centennial Lane would be less than what that arterial carries daily at morning and evening rush hours.

For cynics, yes, the expert was paid by SAC/HC. Yet, as two board members repeatedly contended Dec. 18, before permits to build Covenant Park can be issued, that expert testimony must dovetail with state and county traffic regulations. Confirming an expert's testimony, those members asserted, is not the board's role.

It's important, too, one would think, that the only countering testimony about traffic boiled down, not to the expert's traffic counts and other research, but to personal opinion from perhaps a dozen individual opponents and one, maybe two, of the five board members. Also important is that the populous Centennial area, where Centennial Lane's primary drivers reside, put up no organized opposition to Covenant Park.

Board member Jacqueline Scott expressed the biggest safety hang-up. Discounting the expert testimony, she sided with one of two primary opponents, a man whose Centennial Lane home is opposite the Covenant Park acreage. He also doubts the expert but without data, although his concerns got ample airing in three hearing sessions. Board Chairman Robert C. Sharps, at least for Dec. 18, agreed that Scott's point warranted more board deliberation.

To be direct, one couldn't help wonder if Scott had ever driven a county road, particularly Centennial Lane, or Routes 99, 103, or 108, or St. Johns Lane, to name several in the county's more populous central and eastern areas. Mainly, she didn't seem to grasp the meaning of neutral zones defined on roads by painted, diagonal lines or double-yellow lines. Yet Centennial Lane, for its entire length, has plenty of them. And thousands of drivers maneuver such striping throughout this county every day.

Before tying the Dec. 18 straw vote, Sharps observed that if it weren't for traffic safety, debate over Covenant Park would have ended favorably long before now. Considering his experience in these matters and far-more debilitating projects from a traffic standpoint that have been built in this county, one can't help but wonder about his reservation.

The soap opera resumes Tuesday. The opinion here is that a vote approving Covenant Park shouldn't take long. After all, this isn't a huge PSINet Stadium that members are deliberating; it's a cluster of fields that will be visited mainly by players' parents and families, by the hundreds, not throngs. So, off facts board members must deal with, a negative rendering would be one of the stranger, less rational, more unwarranted decisions in the course of this county's development.

To apply a soccer analogy: Covenant Park's opponents had ample time to take their best shots. But those shots were weak. Most were off-target, and some went over the top.

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

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