2 housing developments fuel fears about increasing traffic

Vale Road area already congested, residents say

Bel Air-area projects fuel concern about traffic

Bel Air

September 26, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At dawn one recent morning, Betty Thomas looked through her bungalow window on Roland Avenue in Bel Air and counted 13 cars jetting down Vale Road.

Betty Baynes parked her car a little farther down from there last May and, in one hour, counted 2,300 cars passing through the intersection of Vale Road and county Route 924. And earlier this month, county engineers counted 1,866 cars going through the same intersection during a morning rush hour.

Still, studies show traffic delays are at acceptable levels, so county officials don't see much of a problem. But about two dozen Bel Air residents - and some town officials - disagree, especially in light of housing that is planned for the area or is under construction.

"Traffic is a major issue," said Bel Air's planning director, Carol Deibel. Congestion clogs the intersection, causing accidents and exasperation, she said. Safety, she added, is the town's biggest concern.

No one disputes that the intersection is a tight one: Vale Road is a tiny, two-lane road, and Route 924 is a main thoroughfare. Maneuvering through the intersection is tricky because the roads are not at right angles.

At issue, however, is how congestion affects the neighborhood, how future development will influence traffic and how the county will alleviate pressure on the roads.

Bel Air residents want a wider building moratorium. County officials are working to shore up the roads.

"We've got to take a good, hard look at the impacts," said Moe Davenport, a Harford County planning chief.

Complicating the picture is the prospect of two major housing developments near the Vale Road intersection, which are in various stages of construction and review. They fall under county jurisdiction, yet sit on the edge of the city of Bel Air.

The first, Vale Meadows, is on Vale Road. Bob Ward Companies has begun building 107 luxury townhouses adjacent to a quiet, older Bel Air neighborhood. Last spring, the company applied for permission to add 100 units of age-restricted housing. That piece of the project is still under county review.

The second development, Irwin's Choice, sits just north of the intersection, at Rock Spring Road and North Avenue. About 300 single-family homes and townhouses have been built. Another 300 townhouses and condominiums are slated for construction.

Bel Air residents complain that development already has bloated Rock Spring Road, the main artery into the town.

Irwin's Choice in particular causes problems because its residents can reach Rock Spring Road only by North Avenue. That small strip of Rock Spring - from North Avenue to Vale Road - is further swollen by traffic from U.S. 1 and James Avenue. There are no traffic signs or signals on that strip of road, which concerns Bel Air officials and residents.

Bel Air residents also say that when people see the backup at the Vale Road intersection, they cut through the old neighborhood. Its streets aren't wide enough for the extra cars, and speeders threaten local children, they say.

Residents also warn that a proposed development near Harford Mall - Tollgate Village, a 104-unit, age-restricted project - will only add to traffic woes.

In light of such concerns, Betty Baynes and a loose coalition of residents are looking to stall the second part of Vale Meadows, and are seeking a wider moratorium on countywide housing projects.

Harford already prohibits new building in areas where schools exceed 105 percent of enrollment capacity. Builders skirt that moratorium with age-restricted housing, which county officials say typically doesn't add children to the books.

According to Cheryl Banigan, the county's chief of traffic and transportation planning, the traffic delays at the Vale Road intersection fall within acceptable levels. A September report showed that the average morning rush hour caused a 52-second delay. In the evening, the delay was about 47 seconds.

Under county ordinances, that's not enough to require developers to make amends, she said. Still, the county has required Bob Ward Companies to widen the road in front of the development and add a center turning lane there. The right-turn lane on Vale Road also will be lengthened.

This month the state repaired a faulty traffic light that caused additional delays on Rock Spring Road, Banigan said. Later, the State Highway Administration will look at adding a center turn lane to sections of Rock Spring Road. She added that the county will look into widening southbound Rock Spring Road to make the turn onto Vale Road easier.

The timing for these projects is unclear. However, Davenport said that in 2006 or 2007, as Irwin's Choice is completed, the county will look into adding traffic signals near North Avenue.

"We'll do everything we can under the limits of the law," Banigan said.

Fifty years ago, when Betty Thomas peered out her window, she saw horses grazing across Vale Road, rather than cars and construction. Change is hard, she said.

"It was a beautiful meadow," county planner Davenport acknowledged. "For the homeowners who've been here 30, 40 years, it's quite a shock to your system."

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