An offer by a group of mountain bikers to build and maintain a $30,000 skills course in Elkridge at no cost to Howard County is drawing opposition from neighbors and others concerned about the activity it might attract.
The course at Rockburn would be the first of its kind in Maryland. But some neighbors say the project would invite more traffic and parking overflow into their communities while increasing trespassing, illegal night riding and drug use.
Supporters, some of whom also live near the park, express excitement that the course is being offered for free, and criticize opponents for not wanting to share the park with mountain bikers.
The county's seven-member recreation and parks advisory board, after hearing two hours of often-contentious testimony at a standing-room-only hearing last week, delayed a vote on the proposal for three weeks to allow for more public comment by letter or e-mail.
"We felt this was such a positive project that I didn't expect such a negative reaction," said John Byrd, director of the county department of recreation and parks.
"I actually was expecting the project to be approved," Byrd said. If an agreement is reached soon, he said, the county still could break ground in late spring.
Sixty people turned out at the hearing to learn more about the project, which would be paid for and maintained by volunteer members of Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts. MORE is affiliated with the International Mountain Bicycling Association, which would take charge of design and installation of the skills area.
Raul Delerme, the county's chief of capital projects and park planning, told the crowd that "our department is in full support of the project," which now awaits approval for construction at Rockburn Branch Park.
The 5,000-square-foot, fenced-in course would be built on an acre in the center of the 415-acre park off Montgomery Road. The course would include rock beds, raised portions of trail and fallen trees — obstacles known collectively as technical trail features, MORE member Melanie Nystrom told the advisory board.
There would also be a pump track, which is an angled path used to teach turns, weight-shifting and balance, among other skills, she said.
Nystrom, who lives next to Rockburn with her husband and two young sons, said she visits the park regularly.
After the hearing, she said she "remains optimistic that opposing sides will come together and the project will continue to move forward."
"What can come out of this would just be so wonderful," Nystrom said. "I'm just so excited about it."
She said MORE volunteers had already rerouted a Rockburn trail away from low-lying wetlands, a project the county didn't have the staffing to tackle.
After Nystrom's presentation, 23 people provided testimony, 18 of them in favor of the skills course. But critics expressed dismay at what they perceived as disrespect by the county.
Yvonne Rawleigh, who lives next to the park, said county officials "swept [the proposal] under the rug" by not notifying the surrounding neighborhoods that would be affected the most. She said the lack of notice explained why only five people spoke out against the proposal.
"We messed up on the notice; we get it," Byrd told opponents. "But we were not required by code to hold this meeting."
Katherine Taylor, another neighbor, said "there's something very wrong politically with the apparent 'understanding' between the county and a private organization."
After the meeting, Byrd said the county is still working out a memorandum of understanding with MORE.
Jack Guarneri, president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, said the county is "lucky to find MORE, which went through all the wickets to do this the right way and is using out-of-pocket money to ensure a first-class, state-of-the-art course."
Yet opponents see another side to the proposal. County police are summoned frequently to investigate drug use in the park, said Steven Rawleigh, and Rockburn parking is insufficient even now.
Dale Schumacher of Elkridge said his family owns 30 acres of Maryland Environmental Trust land in the area, some of which lies between Rockburn and Patapsco Valley parks and is open to bicyclists who ride between the two.
He expressed concern about liability and security issues with more than 100 mountain bikers showing up on weekends. He said he is also worried about sedimentation and degradation of the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Mick Lynn, who lives off Landing Road, said that he is affected by the parking shortage in Rockburn Park spilling over onto his street, but he believes the park must be shared by everyone.
"I can't think of a better way to teach riders to respect the land and properly use trails," he said of the skills course. "It all starts at an early age."
Byrd told the crowd that "mountain biking is here to stay."