Harford, Bel Air moving closer to Ma & Pa Trail connection

Finding a way to close the missing link to the Ma & Pa Trail through the Town of Bel Air could be rapidly reaching a conclusion after several years of false starts and dashed hopes.

At its meeting Monday night, the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners voted 4-0 to purchase, for $75,000, an easement that "travels the length of the Ma & Pa Trail."

The town government has been in discussions with Harford County and H&H Joint Venture LLC about the purchase of an easement for recreational purposes, according to Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane.

H&H is the owner of the former Harford Sanitation yard off of Ellendale Street. The former Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad bed runs on the north side of the H&H property.

Over the past several years, there have been back and forth talks involving the county and the H&H property's owners about a trail easement, which is needed if the approximately two-mile gap in the existing trail is to be closed, forming a continuous trail of almost eight miles from Fallston to Forest Hill.

The permanent, non-exclusive easement approved by the Bel Air Town Board is for purposes of "ingress and egress and installation and maintenance of amenities along the Ma & Pa Trail," Bane said.

Neither Bane nor other town officials would comment further about the easement purchase following Monday's meeting.

Purchase of the easement "in and of itself does not finalize a connection," Harford County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said Tuesday.

"What it means is that it's closer, but as we've said all along, we are working on finally trying to connect the trail and as soon as something is finalized we will be eager to share that good news with the community."

At its meeting Tuesday afternoon, the Harford County Board of Estimates went into a closed session by general consent "to discuss acquisition of real property."

After five minutes, the board reconvened in open session and approved minutes of the closed session and an item discussed in the closed session.

"I can't talk about it," Director of Administration Billy Boniface, who chairs the board, said afterward.

The 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.

The county has acquired the majority of the land along that gap, either through purchases or easements granted by property owners, except for the 200-yard section along the H&H property.

Budget estimates by the county say it will cost approximately $2.3 million to finish the gap in the trail, including building a boardwalk across a wetland area near the Harford County Detention Center.

Trail advocates and town and county officials say the existing trail, particularly the stretch between Williams Street and Tollgate Road, is the most heavily used county-owned recreation facility and that closing the gap will encourage more use and should be a tourism and economic development boost for Bel Air and the county.

A marking study commissioned by the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, a non-profit that works on downtown revitalization and economic growth, that was released in March, states in part: "Work to complete the missing segments of the Ma & Pa Trail as a way to attract new visitors to the town and help catalyze redevelopment of the North Main Street Corridor." The study was performed by Camoin Associates, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

An estimated 130 people participated in the annual Connect the Trail Walk on Oct. 30, which was organized by the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail Foundation, a non-profit group that advocates on behalf of the trail.

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this report.

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