Advocates for park seek limited victory

Recreation: Park supporters remain hopeful as the County Council ponders funds needed for a North Laurel neighborhood facility.

April 22, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Karen Harvie of North Laurel never believed that a neighborhood park would be built while her kids were young enough to enjoy it.

Plans to develop High Ridge Park, more than 90 acres along the Patuxent River purchased after construction of Interstate 95, have been stymied for more than 25 years by the usual budget woes and opposition from immediate neighbors concerned about increased traffic and the potential for crime.

High Ridge, like other park, school and social service projects in Howard and across the Baltimore area, has, increasingly been held hostage to the conflicting desires of its neighbors and the ambivalence of the politicians who serve them. What should be built with public money and where is almost guaranteed to start a fierce public debate these days.

But now, in North Laurel, park advocates are hopeful that limited victory - in the form of a playground and picnic pavilion - is in sight. The County Council will consider at a budget hearing Thursday the $1.1 million needed to construct a neighborhood park on 10 acres of the site.

"This is the best it has ever looked," said Gary J. Arthur, director of parks and recreation, at a recent meeting of the North Laurel Civic Association.

Because the only access to the property is Superior Avenue, a residential street that dead-ends at the entrance, Recreation and Parks officials are holding off on more ambitious plans for the site.

"Originally, we did have a master plan to develop the whole 90 acres," Arthur said. "We've backed off that and have made a commitment to [neighbors] that we're not going to develop the rest of the park until we get different access" by purchasing adjacent private property.

Proposed facilities for the neighborhood park would include an open meadow suitable for pickup games, a tennis and basketball court and a playground for children ages 3 and older. Restrooms would be close to a picnic pavilion and built in a rustic style, along with parking for about 50 cars, Arthur said. At its maximum, about 60 to 100 people could use the park at a time, he said.

Arthur said plans for a nature center have been set aside until a better access road could be established.

If funded by the County Council, construction could be completed by the fall of 2004 or spring 2005, depending on the weather.

"I think the need is absolutely incredible," said North Laurel-Savage councilman Guy Guzzone. "That's been a driving force." Since the budget contains so few projects, few amendments to the budget have been proposed, he said.

But consensus in the community has not necessarily been reached. For almost 10 years, neighbors have been divided over plans for the prospective park.

Harvie and other members of the North Laurel Civic Association have often testified at budget hearings that members of the community have no public place to gather and meet their neighbors and their children have no place to play, other than at Laurel Woods Elementary School.

Residents of North Laurel, one of the oldest communities in Howard County, have to drive to Savage Park or facilities in Prince George's County.

"Heck, dogs have a park in Howard County, but North Laurel children do not. That's where we stand in this county," said Donna Thewes, treasurer of the North Laurel Civic Association.

"People play in the street," said 8-year-old Ian Harvie. "I like it to be safe for them. We want to be able to go to a park that's near to us."

But homeowners who live on residential streets near High Ridge's entrance have protested the plans, expressing fears about potential crime and the environmental consequences of clearing trees and paving parking lots.

"We spent three years looking for a house that backed up into woods," said Linda Ann Lewis, who moved into her home on Fairview Avenue in 1991 believing the park property was part of a watershed and would not be altered.

She said she has battled the park plans since 1994.

Theresa Sheaffer moved into her home on Superior Avenue, next door to her childhood home. Sheaffer had wanted to find a neighborhood like the one she grew up in for her children. She fears a park would attract more traffic.

She is also afraid the proposed park would be so isolated that it would invite crime, illegal dumping or worse. Standing on a trail in the middle of the park, there is surprisingly little trash or other signs of anyone else nearby.

"I wouldn't mind the park if it were more exposed. It is so far back in the woods that no one's going to be able to see what's going on," Sheaffer said.

Sheaffer's father, Vince Knox, does not understand how children will be able to walk to their neighborhood park when Superior Avenue, All Saints and Old Scaggsville roads do not have sidewalks.

That is a problem that may be difficult to solve. "Like every older community, retrofitting is a lot more difficult than designing a community with all the amenities up front," Guzzone said.

Knox also wondered about spending money on a park given the county's budget woes.

"Would you buy your children a swing set if you couldn't afford to pay your bills?" Sheaffer wrote in a flier to her neighbors.

High Ridge is not the only park proposed in the area. The County Council voted in October to begin condemnation proceedings on several small lots for North Laurel Park, 25 acres behind Laurel Woods Elementary School. Planning and construction for that park could not begin until land acquisition is completed more than a year from now.

"We're pretty far away from realizing those four lots," Arthur said at a recent meeting of the North Laurel Civic Association.

Sun staff writer Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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