State defers bike trail approval

Environmentalists note erosion, runoff pollution in Patapsco Valley park

May 23, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

A group of environmentalists derailed yesterday a plan to build a disputed $1.5 million bike trail and bridge that would run through the Patapsco Valley State Park on the border of Howard and Baltimore counties.

Though state officials recommended that the state Board of Public Works green-light the project, known as the Grist Mill Trail extension, the environmentalists raised enough questions about the 1.25-mile project to have it temporarily withdrawn from consideration.

The Board of Public Works, composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, decides the fate of all state-funded infrastructure projects.

A contractor's bid to build the trail for nearly $1.5 million will expire Tuesday, meaning that if the project is approved it would have to go out for bid again and could cost more.

"It's a stumbling block that will be surmounted, but it will take many, many months," said Charles L. Wagandt, an Oella developer who has been one of the project's biggest supporters.

The path, an extension of the Grist Mill Trail, a 1.6-mile trail that runs along the Patapsco River in the state park, has been at the center of an extended battle between environmentalists, local residents and developers who disagree over the project's cost and potential ecological impact on the area.

Supporters say that the trail will help the environment by keeping bikers in a confined area. It could also provide a link between the north and south ends of the 14,000-acre park to bikers and hikers from Ellicott City and other neighborhoods along the river.

But critics contend that the trail and its construction would harm vegetation in fragile riverside wetlands and cause erosion.

The rhetoric continued yesterday as competing sides painted the trail as either an ecological enhancement or disaster.

Officials with the state Department of Natural Resources said that bikers have created a rough trail that is causing environmental damage because the soil is becoming compacted and impervious to water. Water bounces off the trail and toward the river, carrying soil with it.

And without a paved trail to guide them, bikers are wandering too close to active train tracks that lie near the river.

A path would help slow erosion and steer bikers away from oncoming trains. "It's only a matter of time until we have a tragedy," said Eugene A. Piotrowski, a natural resources official.

Some environmentalists agreed with state officials. Barbara Taylor Suit, executive director of Save Our Streams, a statewide environmental organization, said that the group rarely supports paved trails but was in favor of the Grist Mill Trail extension.

"[The area] is already a disaster," she said. "Paving it will solve a problem which is causing a great deal of erosion in the area."

But critics said the trail would have exactly the opposite effect.

"It's the wrong project at the wrong place," said Lee Walker Oxenham, chair of the Howard County Sierra Club chapter. Oxenham said the trail would cause runoff and damage root systems that hold soil in place, impairing fish spawning.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer agreed with detractors. "You're changing the natural environment. ... The government is sticking its nose into too many things and this is one of them," he said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp were not as opposed to the trail as Schaefer but expressed misgivings about the project. Kopp said she had been prepared to approve the trail but yesterday's testimony planted seeds of doubt in her mind.

"All I had read indicated that it was a good project, but serious questions were raised and I want to hear more specifics," she said.

After the meeting, trail critics said they are willing to work with state officials to find a suitable path. "It gives the state a chance to rethink their policy. ... I'm delighted," said Oxenham, who believes the trail should be put higher up the bank, away from the river's edge.

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