Hikers may soon be able to walk on extended public trails in the Sweet Air section of Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County, and anglers may have additional access to the Sawmill Branch of the Little Gunpowder River.
On Wednesday, Aug. 13, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will go before the state Board of Public Works to request approval to buy a conservation easement on 209 acres of land next to that section of the park for $995,000.
"We're very pleased to preserve this section of the park and at the same time provide public access," said Emily Wilson, director of land acquisition and planning for the state DNR.
DNR is requesting the easement purchase through its Program Open Space, a nationally recognized program that acquires and develops recreational and open space areas. The Sweet Air section, one of the largest in the park, consists of 1,250 acres. It straddles the Little Gunpowder River, the border between Baltimore and Harford counties.
Landowners E. Gittings Merryman III, Holly Gilmore and Louis G. Merryman retain ownership of the land but the easement places it in a conservation category that prevents development. The easement is in perpetuity.
"It is privately owned land. They can sell the land but the easement runs with the land," Wilson said.
Wilson said the deal is unusual because easement agreements do not necessarily involve public access. "It's rare, so the credit goes to the landowners for allowing that," she said.
The Manor Conservancy, a Monkton-headquartered conservation land trust, partnered with DNR on the easement. The conservancy was the point of contact with the landowners and helped to facilitate the agreement.
"The Merryman family has been trying to preserve the land for a long time," said Ann H. Jones, of the Manor Conservancy. "They are committed to preservation."
Over the years, Jones said, the landowners looked at various options, eventually settling on a deal with DNR.
The deal precludes development of any additional houses other than what's there already, which is one single-family home and several houses for people who work on the Merryman family farm, Tranquility Manor.
If the deal is approved, the conservancy will monitor the easement to assure that its provisions are adhered to. Included in the department's request to the Board of Public Works is a payment of about $45,000 to the conservancy for administration and compliance.
Wilson said the landowners worked with the department on the public access provision. This involves extending the current 18 miles of trails in the Sweet Air section along the Sawmill Branch, a tributary of the Little Gunpowder River, for at least another half-mile of trails.
"It's a heavily used trail," Wilson said of the Sawmill Branch. "All the public trails in the park are very popular."
In addition, the Sawmill Branch runs through the Sweet Air section where the public trail is planned, allowing anglers access to the stream. The Sawmill Branch flows into the Little Gunpowder Falls, noted for its small-mouth bass and bluegill.
Wilson said a few months after board approval, park officials and staffers from DNR's fisheries division will work out details of the public trail extension and stream access.
"These opportunities come to us, and we've been working with the landowners for several months to craft an agreement that is comfortable to both parties," she said.