Critics attack 2 projects

Proposals in Ulman capital budget for Blandair Park, North Laurel Park continue to engender opposition

April 22, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Critics of proposals to build a park and community center in North Laurel and playing fields at Blandair Park in Columbia continue to try to derail both projects as the County Council prepares to discuss County Executive Ken Ulman's capital budget this week.

Ulman's budget contains $1.9 million for the $19.5 million North Laurel Park Community Center and $1.4 million for planning Blandair's development. In addition, the General Assembly approved $375,000 for Blandair and $200,000 for North Laurel Park.

Planning for the projects has been under way for years. Both Ulman and the council members appear to back the plans that citizens committees have approved for both projects. But the proposals have recently attracted critics.

"The back of the building is 100 feet from my back porch. We want more studies for another location," said Deborah Clark, president of the Heather Downs Homeowners Association, a 21-home community bordering the North Laurel Park site, next to Laurel Woods Elementary School.

"It's going to be like looking at the Wal-Mart from 100 feet away," she told the County Council at a public hearing on the capital budget Thursday night.

She said she fears more crime, parking problems and lowered property values, noting that construction of a mixed-use development on nearby U.S. 1 is already causing changes.

"The homeless and the drunken bums are now moving into the woods to sleep because [of] construction where they used to sleep," she said.

A group called the Thunder Hill Alliance opposes plans for athletic fields at Blandair on the south side of Route 175, the smaller portion of the 300-acre former Smith farm. Alliance members want the entire tract left as a nature park.

"We are baffled why a superior plan for a nature park has not been adopted," said David Barrett, speaking for Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, at the hearing.

"Stop, take a deep breath and place a hold on engineering for this. Form a new committee," said Kim Ambrose, another witness.

But others disagreed.

Melvin Powell, president of the Columbia Ravens youth football league, told the council that his club of 6-to-14-year-olds has increased to nearly 900 children from 150 in four years, and that the biggest problem they face is the lack of fields. His daughter is in a youth lacrosse league with more than 2,000 children, he said, and finding playing space is a major problem.

"You need to have facilities," he said.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat and former school board member, said: "I think you make some very good points," adding that students involved in athletics often do better in school.

Bridget Mugane said the Long Reach Village Board, on which she serves, supports the Blandair plan, which was adopted by a majority of the 23-member park planning citizens committee.

"We need 80 playing fields," she said, noting that the state provided $11 million to buy the land in 1998 with the understanding that active recreation would be provided.

Only 19 acres will be playing fields, she said, and the land is a former farm, not a forest.

In past hearings, others have testified that an under-equipped Oakland Mills High school could also use the proposed Blandair fields.

Tom Lawler Sr. said his Savage Boys and Girls club sponsors more than 21 youth sports clubs that need the fields North Laurel Park would provide.

Mary Rekus, a member of the Laurel Woods Elementary PTA, said that, except for a tot lot and the school's facilities next to the proposed park, "we have no county activities" in the densely populated southeastern county area. The closest park is Savage, several miles away. "We are painfully underserved," she said.

David Monk, a neighbor of the proposed park also supported its construction, including the community center. "I think it would be real good for the community," he said.

County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said she will continue working with Clark's community group to lessen its members' concerns, but she cannot foresee opposing funding for the park and center.

"It's a much-needed resource," she said. "I'm not sure I see a reason to oppose it."

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat whose district includes Blandair, said he also supports the current plan.

"I really haven't heard a strong argument for what's wrong with the current plan," adding that perhaps the differing opinions will help improve what is eventually built.

The council has scheduled public work-session discussions on the capital budget at 10 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday in the George Howard Building.

In addition, the council has scheduled public hearings at 7 p.m. Thursday on the Howard Community College's capital and operating budgets and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on Ulman's operating budget for county government, excluding schools.

The school system's capital and operating budgets will be treated separately, with a public hearing at 9 a.m. May 5. The hearings will be in the council chambers.

Ulman's capital budget calls for spending $353.7 million in fiscal 2008, including $100 million for schools and $125 million for self-supporting water and sewer projects.

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