Yakona Road houses torn down to make way for new park

With little fanfare and plenty of precaution so as to not disturb the neighbors, demolition began Monday on the first of eight Yakona Road duplexes that were purchased as part of a contamination settlement with Hess Corp.

Just after 10:30 a.m., Monday, a claw loader began picking apart the first of the eight duplexes, pulling down the back brick wall to reveal colorfully painted sheetrock, which before long was in a pile outside the house.

"It's a little sad from that perspective," Mandy Stepp, president of the newly formed Ridgely Manor Community Association. "You do look at it and think, that was someone's bedroom. A little pink wall, that's the small bedroom, so obviously it was a child's bedroom. So it's sad to see, but this is going to be a beautiful resource for our neighborhood. I can't wait until (the park) is up, frankly."

The planned park, approved by the community association earlier this month, will be a large open space on the site of the houses purchased as part of a contamination settlement announced in November 2012. Residents contended in a lawsuit that a leaky underground gasoline storage tank at the Hess station in the 1600 block of East Joppa Road caused health and environmental hazards in the community.

Since the settlement was announced, Hess has worked with the community and Baltimore County NeighborSpace to determine the best use for the land. Residents of the 16 townhouses moved out shortly after the settlement, and a community association was formed in March to help organize the remaining residents and begin to plan for management of the park.

The park plan, which includes a playground, picnic area, and a pavilion, was chosen from one of four options at a recent community meeting. Stepp said the community was then given an opportunity to choose aspects, such as the playground, that it wanted included in the plan.

"It was a fairly quick process," Stepp said. "Hess was very good; they listened to all of our concerns, they listened to what the community wanted in a park and were just really great to work with."

Monday's demolition was Stepp's first opportunity to truly envision the park as it might be upon completion. After the fences and sheds behind each house were removed prior to the demolition, the area already began to look more like a park, Stepp said, save for piles of debris and heavy machinery.

"This is very eye-opening," she said. "Now you can kind of see what the potential of the land is."

According to John Black, executive vice president for the environmental engineering firm WSD, the fence removal was one of several pre-demolition steps taken to ensure the work is not intrusive and carried out with the environment in mind.

All of the standing trees that aren't diseased will be preserved through the demolition, Black said, though he admitted "there are limits when you have to get that machine around."

Inside the row houses, crews stripped the buildings of asbestos, refrigeration units, light bulbs — "all of the things that could hold any chemical," Black said.

The demolition crew will work daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an average of two days spent on each house. The first day will be for taking down the structure, and the second will be used to sort through the materials, Black said.

All of the work is being monitored by noise and dust measuring equipment around the site, which ensures the dust is not leaving the property and the sound levels do not exceed the typical ambient noise for the neighborhood, Black said.

Both Steppe and Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson and helped guide the community through the park-planning process, lauded the work that's been done since the settlements last year.

"In just under a year, a community association was started, and we are on our way to Loch Raven's first new park in a half-century," Marks said. "It's been a fast and incredibly productive process."

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