Givin' It All Away: A Whole Lot Of Wasted Cash

ON THE OUTDOORS

November 08, 2009|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,Candy.thomson@baltsun.com

WEVERTON - Sure, it doesn't look like much. But looks deceive.

The soon-to-be parking lot along the Appalachian Trail, not far from Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River, is a monument to government gone stupid with our money.

How else do you explain a 25-car paved lot that started with a price tag of $187,000 and ballooned to nearly a half-million bucks? But that's what happened when bureaucrats began adding bells and whistles to a slab of asphalt so that visiting Washington "dignitaries" would see a "parklike setting," but nothing so rustic as to dirty their shoes.

What's next? A fur-lined tree stand with indoor plumbing?

The paperwork for this project goes back more than two years. According to State Highway Administration spokeswoman Kellie Boulware, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club asked the agency to convert the little gravel lot off Route 67 into a combined commuter lot and trailhead parking area.

All well and good except that there's another commuter lot less than four miles away that rarely is filled, and hikers (me included) have been parking along the shoulder of little-traveled Weverton Road for years.

For the National Park Service, which has a multimillion-dollar backlog of maintenance projects, getting a new parking lot for nothing would be a godsend.

Chief ranger Todd Remaley, who is in charge of law enforcement on the trail, said the old gravel lot was "an embarrassment" because it had become a magnet for dumping, illegal hunting, disorderly conduct and illicit sexual activity.

The designation as a state commuter lot, he said, would lead to "an increased presence of state police."

Fine. But then out came a wish list that included landscaping, interpretive signs, lighting and a bike rack. As Don Owen, a park service official and longtime PATC volunteer, wrote last year to the state highway engineer in charge: "The biggest worry for all of us, I think, is that we want to make sure this parking lot really looks like the gateway to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in Maryland."

And why would that be?

"Because of the spectacular views from and easy access to Weverton Cliffs, we usually take dignitaries from Washington ... up to Weverton," he wrote. "I just want to emphasize how important it is to us that the Weverton Parking Lot really has a 'park-like' feel to it."

During the e-mail exchange, now-retired engineer Bob Fisher raised cost concerns to National Park Service and Potomac Appalachian Trail representatives, noting that by including "every request made by the various members at the meetings" the price tag was now approaching the $500,000 mark.

Rick Canter of the trail club wrote that he had discussed the changes with Owen: "He was bowled over about the total cost of the project [and how you managed to get that funding approved]."

Isn't that special?

The SHA's Boulware explained that the additional cost was because of "the lighting system and the environmental stewardship efforts that support the ridesharing lot, which include storm water management enhancements to treat water runoff."

But there's more. The environmental assessment form used by SHA says the project would not disturb or harm any "rare, unique or valuable plant or animal." Boulware said the Maryland Department of Natural Resources signed off on the project.

But a letter from DNR's Lori Byrne isn't as black and white. While Byrne noted that there are no state or federal records indicating the existence of precious animals or plants at the site, she continued, "this statement should not be interpreted, however, as meaning that rare, threatened or endangered species are not, in fact, present ... adequate surveys have not been conducted."

When nearby residents asked the SHA to put the parking lights on a timer or motion detector, the answer was a polite, but flat, "no."

Boulware said safety concerns require 24-hour lighting but that the SHA is willing to reconsider the matter once the lot is open.

She acknowledged that SHA had not reached out to the community and that some residents were surprised when construction started. Local input, she wrote in an e-mail, "will certainly be taken into consideration for future projects."

Unfortunately, no one is going to stop construction now.

"You can't put the genie back into the bottle," said Diane Younkins, a founding member of the Catoctin Chapter of the Sierra Club and nearby resident, during a phone interview. "I don't know what they were thinking except that they could. There's such an atmosphere here to rubber-stamp it. There was no local involvement. It's just a wink-wink, nod-nod thing."

Just before we hung up, Younkins sighed and said, "Every time I look at that lot, I'm reminded of the Joni Mitchell song."

We all know that one: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

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