Sports space grows sparse

Recreation: Room for youngsters to practice and play games is becoming harder to find as new housing developments emerge.

Howard At Play

December 05, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Finding fields and gyms for its members has become increasingly frustrating for the Savage Boys and Girls Club.

"We're maxed out," said Thomas K. Lawler, president of the 2,400-player youth group, explaining why time on parkland, public school fields and in gyms in the Savage-North Laurel area is at a premium.

"They tell us, `You're lucky to get what you've got,' " Lawler said, referring to officials who schedule the fields and gyms.

And Lawler, a bank vice president, expects the situation to get more frustrating as youngsters from two new large developments, Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms, start joining the club.

Children from Emerson, eventually to be a 1,145-home community of $500,000-plus houses, are already enrolling, noticeably affecting the Savage club, the only youth sports group serving southeastern Howard County. Maple Lawn Farms, just beginning to emerge west of U.S. 29 but within the Savage group's drawing area, will add at least that many more houses.

"We've been feeling the growth in this part of the county -- Emerson's just the latest example -- for the three years," Lawler said. "We're up between 40 and 50 percent in enrollment in just that amount of time, but we essentially have the same facilities we've always had."

The southeastern section of the county, defined by county planners as being south of Route 175, including Savage and North Laurel and more western communities in the Fulton area, had 34,700 residents four years ago.

That figure is projected to reach 44,850 within six years and more than 53,500 by 2030, according to the county planning department. The bulk of that growth will occur south of Columbia.

County officials acknowledge the Savage club's predicament but have no quick fixes.

"It's a real problem," said Gary J. Arthur, director of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks. "The only way to describe it now is overcrowded facilities."

The school system has no plans to build recreational facilities in that part of the county, said Charles Parvis, Howard schools community services director.

And projects planned by the rec and parks department, including new fields and possibly two gyms as part of a proposed community center in North Laurel, are at least five years away, Arthur said. He added that there is little vacant land in the area and few county dollars available for more recreational facilities.

And developers of the new housing communities, while they have to satisfy the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance so they don't overburden schools and roads, are not required to build specific types of recreational facilities.

"It's a real dilemma," said Kenneth M. Alban Jr., a rec and parks administrator for capital projects and park planning who participates in evaluating new development proposals against county requirements. "There is no adequate facilities standard for parks, so we have to compete with developers for land."

County zoning requirements force developers to set aside acreage as open space for environmental protection and recreation. But, county planning and zoning administrators say open-space land is often unusable for construction of large recreational facilities.

At Emerson, a community on 570 acres off Route 216 east of Interstate 95, the developer advertises "nearly 38 percent of the total neighborhood area will always be open space." Tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool have opened -- good for marketing, county officials say.

The developer's brochure, which includes a photo of a woman with two boys, one wearing a baseball glove, describes the community's "lifestyle" as providing "recreational amenities [that] include a swimming pool, tot lots and play areas, tennis courts, `Pocket Parks', and an extensive network of pathways for walking and jogging."

"But there's not one ball field," said Lawler, driving a reporter through the new community. None is required.

"We're not sure what we'll get at Emerson," Arthur said. "Developers don't like us to get involved too early in development, but I doubt that we'll get anything large enough for ball fields."

Dennis Miller, an official with General Growth Properties, which acquired the Rouse Co., developer of Emerson, confirmed that. "There are no plans for ball fields," Miller said.

The Savage Boys and Girls Club, which uses Savage Park almost exclusively in addition to fields and gyms at a number of southeast county public schools, converts baseball and softball outfields into soccer fields in the fall, said Lawler. And that heavy usage harms not only the ability of teams in all three sports to play games and practice but also the grass surfaces.

Gymnasiums are a particularly nettlesome problem, Lawler said, pointing out that several new elementary schools have gyms so small they're usable only for the youngest children. Tiny gyms, reduced in size as a cost-saving measure in recent years by the county school system, are a common complaint countywide among youth basketball groups.

"When you get to the bigger kids, the 13- and 14-year-olds, we're given access to just two schools -- Hammond and Patuxent Valley middle schools -- with gyms big enough for bodies that size," said Lawler. "But we're now fielding 14 teams for those ages. You just can't have adequate practices and games in the hours we need them, and we don't have alternatives."

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