The row of brick duplexes on Yakona Road in Towson has been empty for months, the occupants gone after reaching a settlement with Hess Corp. over claims that a leaking gasoline tank had contaminated their properties. This summer, the houses are scheduled to be razed, and a 2-acre park is to be built in their place.
But while some neighborhood residents welcome the new park, others are raising concerns. They fear they might be financially responsible for maintenance costs and worry that it will attract criminals.
"My concern is getting out of my car and having to fight someone trying to steal my pocketbook. It's going to be ghetto around here," said Selah Tibbs, a security officer who lives across the street. She said she moved from Baltimore in 2001 because there were better schools for her daughter and less crime in the county.
Some of the objections have come from neighborhood residents who were surprised by the settlement with Hess Corp. and said they knew nothing about the claims of contamination from the station on East Joppa Road.
For years, residents who lived behind the station complained of gasoline odors in their homes that they allege originated from a leaking tank under the station. Concerned about potential health risks, residents filed dozens of lawsuits and settled with Hess last fall.
The full terms were not disclosed, but as part of the settlement, Hess bought eight duplexes and will tear them down. The New York-based company has hired engineers and consultants to design a public park and has been talking with NeighborSpace, a nonprofit that acquires land for public open space, about maintaining the property.
Plans for the park prompted formation of the Ridgely Manor Community Association, whose leaders hope to bring people together.
"It's unfortunate that this all transpired this way, but once the local open space is available, it's going to be really nice," said Dale Cassidy, vice president of the association.
Mandy Stepp, who lives down the street, envisions a green space where children play and adults hold picnics. "It's going to be a place where we as a community can just gather," said Stepp, president of the association.
While terms of Hess' settlement are confidential, Annapolis attorney Roy L. Mason, who represented residents who moved, said the agreement didn't require Hess to build the park.
"As long as Hess works with the community, I'm sure it'll be a tremendous benefit," Mason said of the park. "But the community has to be involved. That's really key."
Responsibility for the park has been a sticking point. County agencies won't be involved in the park, and the company wants to donate it to a nonprofit.
At a recent community meeting, some who gathered in the cafeteria at Pleasant Plains Elementary School with Hess officials and consultants questioned why it should be the neighborhood's duty to take care of the land. When one person suggested the spot would be perfect for barbecues, another asked who would clean up their mess.
"It provides a desperately needed community resource," Marks said. "This will be the first new park in the Loch Raven Boulevard corridor in decades."
Marks said he understands the concerns, but added, "Most people would rather have a nice community amenity that's properly maintained and watched over then having more homes in their backyard."
Some residents are skeptical of Hess' motives.
"I want to believe that they have the best intentions, but they're concerned about the bottom line," said Michelle Darling, who lives down the street from the homes that are to be knocked down. "I kind of feel like it was Hess' way of getting out of this as quickly as possible."
According to officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment, four of the homes that were part of the Hess settlement "had levels of long-term health concern" because of petroleum contamination. If there had not been a settlement, the agency would have required Hess to take action, according to spokesman Jay Apperson.
In recent months, residents in five other homes not part of the settlement have requested indoor air sampling, he said. A sample collected in April showed an elevated level of naphthalene, a chemical compound that, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cause skin and eye irritation and other harmful effects under prolonged exposure. Officials believe that might have been attributed to a lab error because other samples did not show the problem, so testing is being repeated, Apperson said.
Hess spokesman Denny Moynihan said the company has been cooperating with the Department of the Environment. "Monitoring is an ongoing process," he said in an email. "Every result from every test has been reviewed by MDE."
Meanwhile, Apperson said, officials believe the land is safe for a park. He said health risks that have been identified stemmed from vapors in homes, not surface soil contamination.
"There has not been any evidence of surface soil contamination" on the land, he said.
The Department of the Environment has approved a conceptual plan from Hess for turning the land into a park, he added. "There will be more details to come, and we will continue to review what they plan to protect the environment and public health."
Moynihan said Hess plans to financially support long-term maintenance for the park, but details haven't been worked out on how long or how much it would pay.
Marks said that's only right. "They should provide some sort of payment for the upkeep of the property," he said.
Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace, said its board is set to decide this month whether to accept Hess' donation of the land into the NeighborSpace program. Another community meeting with Hess officials is also scheduled for later this month.
Leaders of the community association say they'll keep working to enlist members and discuss the options. While the organization formed because of the park, Stepp hopes it can also help residents with other issues. The association hosted a "Dumpster day" to encourage cleanup efforts, and set up an online bulletin board where residents post items from lost pets to recommendations of contractors.
Stepp calls the neighborhood "a little gem" where neighbors help each other, and she hopes the park debate will promote community involvement.
"A lot of us are looking at this as our lemonade moment," she said.