Panel agrees on park land use

Blandair list includes play areas, pavilions, preserve

Sports fields' placement at issue

Nature center proposal raises some questions

April 16, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A group of Howard County residents broadly agreed last night on the best uses for Blandair, the 300-acre wilderness in the core of Columbia.

The citizens committee, which is planning the park-to-be, voted unanimously to include space for athletic fields, picnic areas, pavilions, forest and wetland preserves, trails, a children's garden, nature center and playground, and to retain a buffer of land around a cluster of historic buildings.

The Blandair Committee also agreed that access should be provided to both sides of the park from Route 175 and that a portion of Oakland Mills Road should be closed as it runs through the south end of the park so that drivers won't cut through.

Members still need to discuss sizes, numbers and locations for the various uses, a point of some contention. Some on the group have proposed that -- in fairness to the many surrounding neighbors -- the sports fields be evenly spaced between the south and north sides of the park, which is split by Route 175. Others believe the north side should be an area for quiet, passive uses.

But committee members have already jumped a major hurdle by agreeing on the mix they want to see on the expansive property. Their vote came so quickly last night -- after months of discussion -- that they seemed to surprise themselves.

"I can't believe that," exclaimed Gary J. Arthur, county director of recreation and parks, who is a moderator at committee meetings. "That's very good."

The Blandair estate has generated intense interest because it offers the tantalizing prospect of a huge, clean slate in a central place. Sports teams desperate for more playing fields, naturalists equally eager to see untouched land and neighbors concerned about extra traffic and lights have all weighed in on how they would like to see the Columbia property used.

Committee members agreed that the task is weighty.

"There will be no other major park in the middle of Howard County," said Bob Moon, an architect who sits on the panel.

Three groups within the Blandair Committee had earlier presented ideas for the park, and the members voted last night to include everything that appeared in at least two of those three plans. They could add to their list at later meetings.

Among other suggestions, the group focusing on historic preservation had recommended against constructing anything new on a third of the farm -- land surrounding its 19th-century mansion and outbuildings -- unless it adds to the goal of historic and cultural interpretation. The buildings lie to the north of Route 175.

The committee's active recreation group suggested that eight sports fields be evenly split between the property's south and north sides, buffered from neighborhoods by trees, berms and other greenery. Members also proposed pavilions and playgrounds on both sides; a skate park on the south side; a multipurpose building nearby where basketball and volleyball players could practice; and a dog park on the north side.

The group focusing on environmental issues proposed a children's garden meant for play; a working garden where high schoole students could learn entrepreneurial skills; a small amphitheater for music, plays and speeches; an Outward Bound course to teach teamwork, along with dorms to house people overnight; and a nature center to educate people about the environment.

The environmental group also suggested that the county team with the National Audubon Society, which wants to open 1,000 nature education centers across the country by 2020, including one in Howard County.

That idea raised some questions last night because the Howard County Conservancy is building an environmental education center in Woodstock and the county is hoping to build a nature center in west Columbia. Some wondered if Blandair needed a center of its own.

But Jim Eacker, a committee member who also is on the conservancy's board, said there is room for more than one facility in Howard County.

"A nature center can be a lot of different things," he said.

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