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BGE plan to uproot hundreds of trees in Leakin Park sparks furor

Power company wants to replace an aging gas line in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park

By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

6:30 PM EDT, September 26, 2013

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One of the largest urban woodland parks in the eastern United States appears destined to get less wooded. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. aims to cut a swath up to two miles long through Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park in West Baltimore to replace an aging natural gas pipeline there.

The plan has alarmed advocates of the city's largest park, who estimate from the various routes broached so far that anywhere from 500 to 2,000 trees could be felled, some of them a century or more old.

"Parks are so important to the city," said Jo Orser, president of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park and a resident of neighboring Hunting Ridge. "They are going to come in and do a 75-foot [wide] clear-cut. That does not seem right to us."

Sarah Lord, chair of the city's forestry board, called laying a new pipeline through the more than 1,000-acre park "a stunningly bad idea" that undercuts the city's efforts to boost its anemic tree canopy.

BGE spokesman Aaron Koos said nothing's been decided yet, and the corridor cut through the woods would not have to be that wide in many places. But the gas pipeline now running through the park must be replaced, he said. Installed in 1949, the wrapped steel pipe has had to be repaired 38 times in the past three decades.

"At some point you've got to stop making repairs and do the replacement," Koos said.

The pipeline through the park is part of a 16-mile line extending from western Baltimore County to BGE's Spring Gardens natural gas storage complex in South Baltimore, Koos explained. That line was the first to bring natural gas to Baltimore from interstate pipelines to the west, he said, and the stretch to be replaced still serves 90,000 customers.

One reason the old pipeline may be showing its age is because it runs along and under Dead Run, a tributary of the Gwynns Falls, one of three streams that empty into Baltimore's harbor. Since the pipe was laid, federal and state environmental laws have been passed that severely limit disturbance of rivers and streams.

"It's a different time," said Councilwoman Helen Holton, whose district encompasses the park. "If we had all the regulations in place [then that] we do today, that pipeline would never be put where it is."

Park advocates say they realize the pipeline is an energy lifeline for the city but question why the replacement must come at such a toll for the city's wooded jewel, first envisioned in 1904 by the Olmsted brothers, influential landscape architects who designed parks and college campuses nationwide. Part of the park — including where the pipeline could be placed — was the estate of a 19th-century industrialist, and some of the old structures remain.

The park has an active and vigilant friends group, which formed decades ago to fight — and defeat — plans to extend Interstate 70 through Leakin Park. Group leaders say their dander is up again, in part because they only found out about the pipeline indirectly, from a resident whose property is surrounded by the park.

Millicent Aymold, whose 150-year-old home sits on 8.5 privately owned acres, got a letter this summer informing her that her sylvan property would have to be bisected by the project.

"I'm concerned about what I'm going to be looking at," said Aymold, 61.

Standing over a surveyor's stake driven into her wooded slope, Aymold said she's worried that tree removal for the project would exacerbate erosion on her property, which juts into the southern side of the park.

At another spot in the park bordering Hunting Ridge, surveyor's stakes bracket a rustic amphitheater in the woods, with benches hewn out of logs. Park advocates say the clearing is used by classes at nearby Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle School.

City parks officials say they're consulting with BGE in an attempt to minimize the disruption.

"They're bringing a lot of gas in that serves a lot of folks in the city of Baltimore," said parks chief Bill Vondrasek. "It's got to be done. But what is going to be the least environmentally impactful way of doing this? I'm speaking for the park and the trees."

Vondrasek said city officials have pressed BGE to consider alternatives. They plan to walk the various proposed routes on Friday with company representatives and park advocates.

"It's the biggest uninterrupted stretch of forest we have," he added. "There's beautiful trees out there. It makes me sick to my stomach when I stand out there and think about this. Is there no better way to do this?"

Holton said she wants to minimize disruption to the park as well, but she added that shifting the pipeline to run through residential neighborhoods bordering the park is "non-negotiable."

"If there were a gas leak or anything, it would be a human catastrophe," she said. The councilwoman said she wants to find "the path of least resistance," but doing nothing is not an option.

"There have been leaks in the pipe," Holton said. "The materials of the pipeline are corroding. We can't just say leave it be."

Right now, BGE is weighing three different routes, Koos said.

One — surveyed months ago, according to Aymold and park advocates — would run south of the existing pipeline and skirt the park's southern border along Hunting Ridge, Rognel Heights and Lyndhurst.

An alternative proposed two weeks ago when BGE met at Holton's behest with some park advocates and city officials, would run even more of the replacement line along the park's border by West Hills.

Orser contends that the corridors BGE has proposed to clear contain "trees that were there at the time the U.S. became a country" and many others that are at least 100 years old. Other than hiking and biking trails, the area is mostly wooded.

Park advocates say that if a new pipeline has to be laid, they believe the least disruptive would be to run it along the old corridor, which already has a 26-foot wide path cleared through the forest.

But the existing pipeline has to remain in operation while the new one is laid, Koos said. Besides, putting it in or near the stream bed faces steep regulatory hurdles, he noted.

BGE is willing to consider a third option of building the new line parallel to the old one, he added, but for safety reasons the replacement would have to be installed 75 to 100 feet away, effectively opening a new clearing through the woods.

The new pipeline requires keeping a 40-foot corridor through the forest permanently clear of trees, Koos explained, so that it can be easily checked on from the air. While crews may need to widen that clearing to 75 feet in places during construction, he said, BGE would allow trees to reclaim a portion of that.

BGE hopes to begin construction next year, the spokesman said. Before any decision is made, he said, the company would evaluate the project's impact on the forest and prepare a plan for minimizing and mitigating the disruption.

BGE has become a major supporter of tree planting in the region, even as it has sparred in recent years with residents and local officials over extensive tree trimming and removals it's conducted in neighborhoods to protect power lines from storms. The company announced this week that it was giving $300,000 to provide 13,000 free trees to customers through a pair of nonprofit groups.

Lord, head of the city forestry board, welcomed BGE's commitment to planting trees, which studies have shown reduce air pollution and make the air healthier to breathe. But she noted that Baltimore has fewer trees than other cities, and its 6,000 acres of parks provide a large share of the urban canopy.

"It's a great area," said George Farrant, 73, a retired community college chemistry instructor and vice president of the friends group, who lives in Hunting Ridge on the edge of the park. "We have owls all the time and foxes. … I hate to see all these big trees go."

Because of incorrect information from Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., an earlier version misstated the scale of an unrelated BGE donation for tree planting.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com