Parcel is the missing piece for bike trail

Work stops as DNR seeks access to property

To be used as construction site

October 16, 2002|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

A hotly debated project to build a mile-and-a-quarter-long paved bicycle path through Patapsco Valley State Park along the border of Howard and Baltimore counties has hit another snag that could significantly delay its completion.

Construction of the path was approved in August by the Maryland Board of Public Works after a long fight between supporters, who favor opening the valley to more users, and opponents, who fear the effects of increased traffic and water runoff.

But the state Department of Natural Resources has stopped work on an upstream section of the path while it attempts to get permission to use one-seventeenth of an acre of land owned by an Ellicott City man.

Construction vehicles need to use that tiny property - the former site of the Ilchester Road post office - to assemble a new span that will carry the path across the Patapsco River, using old Patterson Viaduct railroad bridge supports.

The builders also plan to cross the property to carry supplies for construction of downstream portions of the path.

But the owner of the land, Michael A. Nibali, 57, of Ellicott City, says he wants the state to purchase the parcel from him or work around it.

Doing the necessary research to purchase the land could take a year to 18 months, officials managing the project for the DNR told Nibali. They have asked him to sign an easement allowing them to use the land for 18 months, though they say the project would be completed within a year.

Although "they are respecting [my] private property," Nibali said, "it seems absurd to me. They made an assumption [that the land belonged to the state]. That is not a smart way to do business."

The Department of Natural Resources thought that the Ellicott City parcel, at Ilchester and Bonnie Branch roads, was the state's to use, said spokeswoman Heather Lynch.

Lynch would not comment on the details of the negotiations with Nibali. But the contractors need the plot to assemble the bridge on the Howard County bank and push it across the 168-foot stretch between the Patterson abutments.

The long debate over the trail had divided environmentalists and others who are concerned about the future of the park. While Save Our Streams and the Interfaith Coalition for the Environment support the trail, members of the Sierra Club have been divided.

"It's disappointing, but this hasn't been an easy road to accomplishing this wonderful trail that we so much believe in," said Charles L. Wagandt, a developer and member of the Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, which supports the trail.

Lee Walker Oxenham of Ellicott City chairs the state Sierra Club's Patapsco task force. She said the land use is one of many problems with the project. "People aren't going to be willing to keep talking about a project that keeps coming back with more and more costs," she said, referring to the possible necessity of buying Nibali's property.

Nibali said he had heard about the debate over the project but thought it would make his property more valuable. That end of the trail has no provisions for restrooms or refreshments, he noted.

The 57-year-old computer specialist for the Social Security Administration obtained the plot in the 1980s when he bought the site of St. Mary's College, a former Redemptorist seminary on Ilchester Road.

Nibali held on to the small parcel after he sold the college property in 1986. He had been toying with several ideas for the space, including returning the post office to its original site.

He said he became aware that his land was being used as a staging area for the path's construction when he drove past the property a few weeks ago.

On Feb. 20, the Maryland Department of the Environment approved a permit to build the trail. The Sierra Club appealed in March, and the Department of Natural Resources filed a motion to dismiss the appeal because the agency claims the club lacks authority.

The two groups will meet Oct. 31 to try to find a compromise, Walker Oxenham said.

Despite the latest dilemma, DNR officials remain optimistic.

"We fully expect this project to go forward," Lynch said. "We are committed to maintaining the historic nature of the [Patterson] bridge while making it sound and safe for use."

The old bridge abutment shows signs of stress, Lynch said. DNR is considering reinforcing the railroad arch with temporary supports to protect against the vibrations when construction trucks cross.

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