County Council nears vote in creating 25-acre park

Action scheduled Oct. 30 on condemning private lots

October 23, 2002|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council is gearing up to vote on condemnation of the last pieces of private property in an area destined to be a neighborhood park in North Laurel.

The area had been promised recreation facilities as long ago as 1976, but budget problems, community opposition and land-ownership questions stymied plans.

At Monday's public hearing before the council's vote scheduled for Oct. 30, Tom Flynn, former president of the North Laurel Civic Association, testified in favor of the action.

"The land involved ... has basically been underdeveloped and underused," he said. "It has served as a litter repository for the last hundred years."

The 25-acre area was subdivided into small parcels in the early 1900s but never developed, said Gary J. Arthur, director of Howard's Department of Recreation and Parks. To date, the county has purchased 122 of the 133 lots. Some of the plots could not be built upon because they contain wetlands.

In June, the council agreed to pursue condemnation on all but one of the remaining lots because their owners could not agree on a price. The County Office of Law hopes to file the condemnation suits this week.

"This is a total last-resort way for us to acquire" land, Arthur said. "We're the property owner that surrounds those properties. There's not going to be any interest in people buying these lots."

The department used condemnation for the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge and Fulton's Schooley Mill Park, he said.

Several county reports have emphasized the need for recreation facilities in the North Laurel area. The closest park is in Savage, which is not within walking distance.

Although the county Department of Recreation and Parks developed a master plan for a 90-acre park along the Patuxent River in the late 1980s, residents of the area immediately adjacent to it protested.

"Our momentum for that park stopped, basically," Arthur said.

When other community members started organizing in favor of the park, it fell victim to budget cuts.

The park probably will contain athletic fields and traditional recreation equipment. Residents have requested some kind of community center as well, Arthur said.

Karen Harvie, spokeswoman for the North Laurel Civic Association, said her neighborhood lacks a location where children and teen-agers can meet each other -- other than hanging out at strip malls.

It could be years before the park can be built.

The condemnation proceedings could take a year or more to complete, said Richard E. Basehour, senior assistant county solicitor. Then money must be found within the county budget to fund the endeavor. Arthur estimated 2006 would be the earliest residents could see construction on a park, although that hinges on many factors.

Supporters and opponents of changes to Howard County's code on aggressive animals also addressed the council at Monday's hearing.

A proposed law would make it easier for residents to make complaints about problem animals and allow county animal-control workers to remove an animal considered "potentially dangerous" when an owner refuses to surrender it. Owners would have seven days to appeal before the animal is destroyed.

Maj. Jeff Spaulding of the Howard police testified in favor of the changes, but Cheryl Burkeschwarz, chairwoman of the Animal Matters Hearing Board, said she felt the proposed legislation gave the board and animal-control administrator "dangerous powers."

"We would like an opportunity as a board to have input," she said. "There are sections of this that we feel remove rights from citizens."

Burkeschwarz noted the board had not had the opportunity to review the legislation before it came before the council, and she agreed when Councilman Chris Merdon of Ellicott City asked if the group wanted the motion tabled for further review.

Others were concerned about the burden the changes would place on dog owners to protect their pets if unjustly charged. "It does become a long process with extra steps and extra costs involved," said Adrianne Lefkowitz, president of the Maryland Dog Federation Inc., a dog-owner advocacy group.

But the wife of a victim of a pit bull attack spoke emotionally in favor of the legislation.

"If a human being did this, they would be arrested and incarcerated for assault. But a dog has more rights," said Nancy Lewis of Mount Airy.

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