As Howard County officials move closer to building a long-sought community park in North Laurel, people who live next to the 47-acre property are objecting to plans to include a large community center, fearing the "riff-raff" s one neighborhood resident said it could attract.
Plans for the park behind Laurel Woods Elementary School call for ball fields, tennis and basketball courts, picnic areas, a skate park, a playground, walking trails and a 55,000-square-foot, $13.3 million multi-use community center similar to one that opened in October in Glenwood, at the county's Western Regional Park.
A possible indoor swimming pool at the North Laurel facility could come later. The project, which is likely to begin in the second half of 2008, represents a major upgrading of public recreation facilities in the county's southeastern area.
That hasn't impressed opponents, however.
"I don't want that community center or an aquatic center sitting in my backyard," said Debbie Clark, president of the 21-home Heather Downs Homeowners Association off Whiskey Bottom Road. The neighborhood is behind the site.
Downs led a delegation of about two-dozen protesting residents at a recent county-sponsored park planning session, and she's expected to testify tonight at County Executive Ken Ulman's first budget hearing.
Clark said she and her neighbors fear development of the park will lower their property values and attract people who will sell drugs and loiter. She referred to nearby apartment dwellers as "riff-raff."
County officials said the opposition caught them off-guard since the project has been discussed publicly and written about in area newspapers for years. Officials worked largely through the North Laurel Civic Association, which sponsored several candidates forums during the recent election campaign.
"I was kind of surprised. We've been working on this project since 1995," said Gary J. Arthur, the county's director of Recreation and Parks. He said the community center will include a police office, and the park will have gates that will be locked each night. Officials also favor a design with two park entrances, but no through roadway, to keep out people seeking short cuts.
"I think it's all part of the process. They have a right to state their opinions. I've not been part of a project yet that there's not been opposition, whether it's schools, ball fields -- you name it," said former County Councilman Guy Guzzone, who spent eight years working to acquire land for the park.
Newly elected Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who is Guzzone's replacement, said, "I'm going to listen to what they have to say."
Donna Thewes, a community activist and former County Council candidate who served on a citizens committee helping to plan the park, said it is badly needed, though some neighbors may dislike losing the wooded area they've become used to seeing.
"The community has asked for this for years," she said. "I've been fighting for parks since I lived here."
Thewes said the park and community center will help the area and will be well supervised. She worked as a community-police liaison for more than three years.
"One of the reasons we're doing the community center is to stop having people who have nothing to do with their lives," Thewes said. Having an activity center close by for teens will help, not hurt the community, she said.
Thewes also objected to generalizations about apartment residents. "These are decent people," she said, many of whom pay more in rent than she pays for her mortgage.
But Debbie Clark said the community center would be too big and too close to her home.
"Our street is probably going to be affected more than anybody," Clark said, referring to Homestretch Court. She's used to seeing wildlife in the woods, and watching the stars from her second-floor master bathroom windows without fear of prying eyes or building lights.
"It's going to infringe on my privacy," she said.
Clark said she read an article several years ago about plans for the park, but didn't investigate to see how it might affect her community. Her neighborhood's first direct notification from the county came this fall, she said, when residents got letters inviting them to see two versions of a park concept plan last month.
"I remember hearing about the park, but I don't remember hearing about the huge community center and the aquatic center," she said.
"I guess part of it's my fault, but I work for the Department of Defense. I don't have time to read stuff to see what's going on. I don't want to spend 10 hours looking at Web sites," she said. "I didn't know the North Laurel Community Association existed."