A small but determined group of self-styled environmentalists is trying to derail plans for developing sports fields in the 300-acre Blandair park in Columbia, even arguing against a request for state money to help build the park.
Blandair, and a bill to create a new class of liquor license in Howard County for organic beer and wine sales, are drawing the most intense interest locally for this year's General Assembly session.
The request for $500,000 in state bond money to help develop the park was the only one of four bond requests to draw fire at a delegation-sponsored public hearing on local bills held Thursday night in Ellicott City.
The other requests asked for $500,000 each for a North Laurel Community Park, the Robinson Nature Center on 19 acres the county owns on Cedar Lane near Route 32 and a parking garage in downtown Ellicott City.
Gary J. Arthur, the county recreation and parks director, said Blandair park has received $800,000 in state funds to help renovate the 1856 mansion on the old Smith estate, but he wants more money to begin designing the park. A 23-member citizens committee approved plans for sports fields on the portion south of Route 175, leaving more open, natural areas on the north side of the highway.
Advocates, including 10-year park and recreation board member Joan Lancos, argued that four of the proposed ball fields would help an under-equipped Oakland Mills High School, which is next to a portion of Blandair. The Oakland Mills Community Association board supports the bill.
"We talked about making this a park to be used by the citizens, with playing fields," said Del. Frank S. Turner, who recalled that state and county purchase of the land for $10.7 million in 1998 prevented 1,000 or more houses from being built there. "We fought to get that park and sold it to the governor as a regional park."
The Long Reach Village Board also supports the committee's plan, testified Bridget Mugane, who represented the board. She noted that Long Reach is Columbia's most populous village, with 15,000 residents, and she contended that the former farmland is not suitable for a nature center.
Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County and a self-proclaimed "tree-hugger" also supported the bond request.
"We have a responsibility to provide active recreation in the park," she said.
But several people belonging to the Thunder Hill Alliance, which recently fought a plan to develop housing next to the former Columbia Medical Plan buildings on Knoll North, disagreed.
"This is a new day and a new world we live in. Attitudes have changed, and we are more sensitive to environmental concerns than ever before," said W. Harry Schwarz, special projects administrator at Tia Sophia Institute. "The Smith farm is the perfect location for an environmental education center," he said.
Jud Malone testified that developing sports fields would "harm efforts to preserve the county. The Blandair plan fragments open space." He, too, was an advocate for green space and a nature park on the entire 300 acres.
Brian Wallace, education director for Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, urged the legislators to "scrap the current plans for the Smith farm. One hundred years from now, we don't want to be remembered as the county that has the most ball fields," he said.
Another bill that would create a new class of liquor license to help My Organic Market, a small store that opened in October in the former Burlington Coat Factory space at Route 175 and U.S. 1 in Jessup, drew heavy opposition.
Richard W. Story, county economic development authority president and CEO, said the new license is needed to allow the chain store to sell organic beer and wine and help the renovated shopping center succeed. More than a dozen local liquor store owners strongly objected. Chain grocery stores are not eligible for liquor licenses under state law.
The bill is so restrictive it would apply only to this one store in Howard, Story said. County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who represents Jessup, also supported the bill.
Steve Wise, a lawyer representing the Maryland Licensed Beverage Association, said creating this new license would "set the stage for future legislation." Liquor store owners fear that eventually, supermarkets might win the right to sell alcohol, driving them out of business.
"The local folks have been here a long time. If something goes wrong with their store, you know where to find them," Wise said.
William Boarman, owner of Northridge Wine and Spirits, said "this bill could be the beginning of the end of the alcoholic beverage business as we know it."