Forest Hill resident Rhonda Utz is a regular user of Harford County's Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, but she got her first glimpse Sunday at a two-mile section between the Bel Air and Forest Hill portions of the trail, where advocates have spent years trying to bring the gap into the popular trail system.
"Finally, to be able to connect it all and to be able to run from Forest Hill to Fallston is pretty awesome," Utz, who uses the trail about four times a week for running and biking, said.
She was one of about 130 people who participated in the seventh annual Connect the Trail Walk, an annual event hosted by the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit, all-volunteer group that works to promote and improve the trail.
The recreational trail, which is owned and maintained by Harford County, is broken into two sections, one between Annie's Playground in Fallston and the Williams Street trailhead in Bel Air and a second between Blake's Venture Park and Friends Park in Forest Hill.
The two sections make up a combined 5.75 miles, separated by the two-mile gap Utz and her fellow walkers traversed Sunday afternoon.
The walkers, who met at the Williams Street trailhead and were bused to the trailhead at Blake's Venture Park, were split into two groups. They walked along the two-mile gap, from Forest Hill back to where they started in Bel Air.
The county has acquired the majority of the land along that gap, either through purchases or easements granted by property owners, except for a 200-yard section slightly north of the Williams Street trailhead.
That section is part of the property owned by the family of the late Harford County state Sen. J. Robert Hooper. The land is the former home of Harford Sanitation, a company started by Sen. Hooper and his father. It was acquired by Waste Industries after Sen. Hooper died in 2007.
The property is still used by a series of commercial tenants, and the Hooper family has been negotiating with Harford County and the Town of Bel Air – all parties are trying to work out who will be responsible if anyone using the trail goes onto the Hooper property.
Walkers got a glimpse of the section in question during their trek Sunday. Phil Hosmer, president of the foundation and leader of the second group of about 30 people, pointed out a chain-link fence marking the edge of the Hooper property.
"That's the land that's needed, all up through here is already acquired," Hosmer told the group.
If the Hoopers allow the trail to come through, it would be a direct link to North Main Street, near Independent Brewing Co., according to Hosmer. He led the group around the Hooper property, through privately-owned land where the owner had granted access Sunday, to get back to Williams Street.
County officials hope to reach an agreement with the Hoopers by the end of this year, a county spokesperson said last week. County Executive Barry Glassman and Director of Administration Billy Boniface reiterated that hope while visiting with walkers before they headed out, according to Hosmer.
"We hope this is our last walk like this," Hosmer said.
It would take about three years to design, engineer and build the trail link. The county previously budgeted $2.5 million for the project.
"When this trail is connected, you'll be able to walk from Forest Hill to Fallston – or ride your bike or run – on one continuous trail," Hosmer said.
The walkers started their trek Sunday at Melrose Lane and Bynum Road and followed the approximate path of where the missing trail link could go.
The route wound in a southerly direction along the shoulder of the Bel Air Bypass, through wooded areas behind the Harford County Detention Center, across streams, through residential communities, skirted the edge of the Bel Air Memorial Gardens, crossed the heavily-traveled Moores Mill Road and ended back at Williams Street.
The walkers, who included parents and children, enjoyed clear and sunny weather, with temperatures in the 60s. They could see trees bursting with fall colors.
Hosmer noted that the missing link would not be built where they were walking on the shoulders of busy roads such as Bynum Road and Route 1. Those portions would go through wooded areas farther from the shoulder.
There will be boardwalks, similar to what can be found along the Fallston-to-Bel Air section, going through the forested portion near the county jail off Rock Spring Road, according to Hosmer.
Trail users can also go through a service tunnel under Route 1. The tunnel was built during the mid-1980s, according to Hosmer, in anticipation there would be a trail system between Bel Air and Forest Hill.
"The tunnel's been there for about 30 years, waiting for a trail to come through," Hosmer told the walkers.
Several housing developments that sprung up between the Bypass and Route 23 in the late 1980s into the early 2000s – and were along the old rail bed – were required by the county to provide easements for a trail.
Utz, who was part of the second group of walkers, said she enjoyed going through the wooded areas. An informal trail, which had been cleared and marked by foundation board members, served as the route.
She said after the walk ended that she would enjoy "being able to run through nature and to see that, especially the changing of the seasons."
Another participant, Forest Hill resident Alice Rugemer, walks on the northern section of the trail a couple times a week.
"It would be great," she said of connecting the trail. "I would love to walk the whole way, from Forest Hill to Fallston."
The Ma & Pa trail is named for the former Ma & Pa Railroad, once a major rail line that ran through Harford County between Baltimore and Pennsylvania. Portions of the trail, including those in the missing link, follow the old railroad bed, and the site of Bel Air's former train station is near the Williams Street trailhead.
"I just can't wait for it to be finished," Rugemer said.