State board approves Patapsco bike trail

Paved path would span 1 1/4 miles near Ellicott City

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August 08, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In a key decision on a project that has split the environmental community, the state Board of Public Works decided, 2-0, yesterday to fund a hotly contested $1.5 million bike trail and bridge for Patapsco Valley State Park.

The paved trail would span 1 1/4 miles along the border of Howard and Baltimore counties near Ellicott City, running beside the Patapsco River and crossing it in one place. It would be an extension of the Grist Mill Trail, and it would nearly double the length of the 14,000-acre park's only paved hiking and biking path.

Supporters -- including several people who bicycled to the meeting -- were elated over the win after years of fights.

Opponents vowed not to give up the battle.

"It's an amenity for developers to sell houses," said Lee Walker Oxenham, chairwoman of the state Sierra Club's Patapsco task force, who attended the hearing in Annapolis. "Those people who stand to profit are supporting this boondoggle."

The Board of Public Works -- the governor, treasurer and comptroller -- delayed a vote on the trail in May after groups raised concerns about environmental damage.

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp said she hiked the area afterward and saw that the heavily compacted dirt path created by visitors is damaging the park. "I honestly believe this trail will enhance it," she said.

Supporters said the pavement would give people on wheels an opportunity to commune with nature and commute in a nature-friendly way from Ellicott City to points south. Department of Natural Resources officials contend that paving the dirt path would be an environmental improvement because the soil erodes into the Patapsco River during storms.

"It's already a degraded area," said project manager Neal Welch, the department's western regional planner. "The trail alignment, for two-thirds of the length, is between a 24-inch sewer line that is exposed and the CSX railroad."

Oxenham, one of three opponents who spoke yesterday, said the problem was location. Pavement should be farther from the river and its floodplains, she argued.

She told the board that three-quarters of the private funding donated to Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, a big supporter of the trail, came from developers.

"This is a bad project," she said. "It's being pushed for the wrong reasons."

Stephen M. Doyle, a federal prosecutor who in his free time is helping the Sierra Club oppose the trail, rolled out a 10-foot-wide piece of black material to simulate what the trail would look like. "It's shockingly ugly, isn't it?" he asked.

Doyle's complaint about the $1.5 million price tag hit home with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who had spent the meeting prodding Gov. Parris N. Glendening about the projected budget deficit of $1 billion. "We don't have the money," he said before he abstained from the vote.

Charles L. Wagandt, a developer of the historic mill town of Oella, said he was "overjoyed" by the 2-0 outcome. Earlier, Wagandt -- a supporter of the Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway -- angrily defended his involvement as purely community-spirited. "I'm interested in sharing the beauty of this valley with others," he said.

Several Sierra Club members broke with group leadership and spoke out in favor of the trail. Also, Rommel Crabtree, president of the Maryland Interfaith Coalition for the Environment, said his organization was originally against the pavement until members saw the condition of the dirt path.

"Doing nothing is really not a good option," he said. "From an environmental standpoint, it gets worse all the time."

The Sierra Club has appealed a permit allowing the DNR to build the trail over wetlands, and Oxenham said she is "extremely confident that we will win."

But Welch, the project manager, said that wouldn't stop the trail -- it would only modify it.

"This vote today means the project's going forward," he said after the meeting.

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