The Howard County Sierra Club and other environmental groups would like to bring people closer to nature, but not too close in Patapsco Valley State Park.
The group filed an appeal with the state Department of the Environment last week in a last-ditch effort to block construction of a 1.25-mile paved trail extension that would open the 14,000-acre park to bicyclists and hikers from Ellicott City and other communities along the Patapsco River to the north.
A permit for the trail to cross less than 100 square feet of Patapsco wetland was granted Feb. 20 to the state Department of Natural Resources by the Maryland Department of the Environment. In its decision, the state said the path would not harm the river or its surrounding wetlands and wildlife.
The new trail would connect roads to the north of the park to the existing Grist Mill Trail, which runs beside the river for 1.6 miles, to parking lots and roads to the south.
The proposed extension, which is expected to cost an estimated $1.5 million, could provide a valuable economic boost to the area by connecting it to other bike paths and roads, attracting tourists and travelers, developers say.
"This is a wonderful path. It would give us an opportunity to share the valley with everyone," said Charles L. Wagandt, a developer who is one of the trail's biggest supporters. Wagandt once headed Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, a group that promotes the trail.
But the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, including the Maryland Conservation Council, a coalition of environmental organizations, view the developers' enthusiasm with disdain. They say the path would harm the river by creating runoff and destroying neighboring wetlands.
"This path is just getting pushed onto the neighborhood by developers," said Mary Marsh, president of the Maryland Conservation Council. "It really doesn't belong there."
The Sierra Club's appeal has been forwarded to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, which will decide whether it is valid. There is no timetable for consideration of the appeal.
The appeal did not surprise trail supporters, who have been fighting with conservationists over proposals to open the valley to more visitors for four years.
"I knew it would happen," said Wagandt, who noted that along the path of the proposed trail extension is an active railroad line and a large sewer pipe.
Wagandt calls detractors a "vocal minority who don't want to share the park" while conservationists say that Wagandt, who is developing property in the mill village of Oella on the river north of Ellicott City, will profit if the bike path is built.
Biking experts point out that bike paths that run through parks are accepted in many other areas, because they encourage bikers to stay on the path.
In Anne Arundel County, bike paths run through at least five parks, said David G. Dionne, trails superintendent for Anne Arundel County.
The trail could connect with the East Coast Greenway, a planned system of bike paths that would stretch from Miami to Maine. Some studies show that bike paths can raise nearby property values by 3 percent to 5 percent.
"Paths are becoming much more accepted. ... And people are using these paths at a phenomenal rate," Dionne said.
But Howard environmentalists say the proposed extension is unusual. Parts of it would run alongside the river and could disturb fish and beaver.
Instead of building the trail close to the river, they say it should be on the other side of the stream or higher along the banks.
State officials and developers say such alternatives have been considered and are impossible.
Conservationists say that because most of the path would be made from concrete or other nonpermeable materials, it would increase runoff in its proposed location.
"See how muddy the river is?" said Sierra Club member Lee Walker Oxenham as she hiked last week past an unusually brown river running high after a recent rain. "That would be its normal color if the path came in."
Builders would have to remove trees and use heavy machinery to build the path, further disturbing the environment, opponents say.
"The park would be never be the same," said Greg Greisman, who lives near the proposed trail.
Greisman said he is worried because the trail would connect with nearby Ilchester Road to the north, which would give bicyclists coming from Ellicott City easy access to the park.
"Once it comes in, it will bring an enormous amount of traffic and cause a lot of environmental concerns," he said.
Wagandt groans when he hears such complaints. "I never thought it would create such a tremendous ruckus."