Extension creates smoother walk at park

Paved 3-mile trail at Patapsco Valley trail improves public access

December 02, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Outdoor enthusiasts who prefer a stroll on a smooth surface to a trek through more rugged terrain can now enjoy a longer walk on the only paved path in the 18,000-acre Patapsco Valley State Park, which has grown to nearly 3 miles with the completion of the Grist Mill trail extension.

Mostly on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River, the 1 1/4 -mile addition joins the existing trail in Elkridge, near the swinging bridge in the park's Avalon section, and runs upriver to Ilchester Road in Ellicott City.

State and park officials say the multiple-use trail will provide greater access to the park for hikers, bikers, walkers, birdwatchers and mothers pushing strollers, as well as disabled park visitors.

The 10-foot-wide trail also has easier access for disabled park visitors by allowing two wheelchairs to travel the path side-by-side. Yesterday, a handful of people made use of the longer path, which runs parallel to the Patapsco and is between a sewer line and CSX railroad tracks at the top of a steep hill.

A man walked at a brisk clip; a jogger flew by, and a group of six broke in the trail - each person at his own pace.

"It's wonderful; this is the first time I've taken my clients to the end of the trail," said Takeyta Bell, a program specialist with the Arc of Howard County, which serves developmentally disabled adults and children, as she led a group of six on an afternoon outing.

Although the paving is finished, plans call for a pedestrian bridge to cross the Patapsco at Ilchester Road in Ellicott City. State officials plan to begin bridge construction in the winter and finish in early spring. The trail extension has been open to the public for the past two weeks. A grand opening ceremony will be scheduled soon.

"I've heard a lot of positive comments from people, saying, `We really appreciate having something like this in the area,'" said Gary Burnett, the park manager.

But a dispute has surrounded the Grist Mill extension, starting before the design work began in 2000 and continuing after its completion. Environmental advocates opposed the trail out of concern that the paved surface would increase runoff into the Patapsco River.

Homeowners in the communities of Relay, Daniels and St. Denis also expressed concerns about increased traffic because of the trail. Others backed the extension, saying it would provide additional access to the park for bicyclists and disabled people. "This really opens up this area to a lot of people who haven't been able to enjoy it," said Charles L. Wagandt, a developer with Oella Co. "People north of the trail won't have to go all the way down to Route 1 to enjoy it."

Ellicott City resident Lee Walker Oxenham, who voiced strong opposition to the extension, said the construction violated county, state and federal laws that protect waterways and wetlands.

"I fought hard against it, and I'll tell you, when I went out to see it, it was three times worse than I thought," said Oxenham, who vowed to oppose construction of the pedestrian bridge.

"We have so little open space," she said, "so little wild area for habitat."

Members of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway - a group that strongly supported the extension - drew criticism during hearings on the project. Environmentalists said developers in the group looked at the extension as a selling point for new developments in the area.

"My belief is that if you live in a community or work in a community, then you also have responsibility to that community," said Wagandt, a former chairman of the greenway group. "It was apparent that this trail, which [the state Department of Natural Resources] very much wanted, was the right move, and we supported it."

In March last year, the Sierra Club appealed the state Department of the Environment's issuance of a permit to cross 100 feet of the Patapsco River as part of the trail extension.

State officials negotiated an agreement in which the environmental group agreed to stop all legal challenges to the project. In return, the DNR agreed not to build any additional paved trails in the park for 10 years.

"Everybody seemed happy, and we haven't heard from the Sierra Club or any opponents," said Gene Piotrowski, the department's director of resource planning.

The extension of the Grist Mill trail hit another snag in April when CSX Corp. - which operates a rail line that parallels the river for a half-mile - raised questions about ownership of a portion of the trail.

CSX and the state reached different conclusions regarding ownership.

"They were going to do more research and get back to us, and we have not heard anything from them for some time," Piotrowski said.

"We felt we had good documentation," he said. "And there was enough area there for a trail to exist between their property and the river."

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