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Elkridge residents flex muscles in advocating for local causes

LibrariesRecreational and Sporting Goods IndustryKen UlmanHoward Johnson

Dorothy Acker and her 12-year-old daughter, Audrey, regularly search for new books at the Elkridge library — on a recent trip they were looking for titles on Audrey's middle-school summer reading list.

The Elkridge library is closest to their home, but it has some drawbacks."The library smells musty. It's kind of grungy inside," Dorothy Acker said.

Many patrons feel that the library, like Elkridge, has long been neglected. The community has won some recent victories — fighting off a proposed rail transfer facility and securing money for new schools and a park — but residents maintain a touch of indignation when they talk about their neighbors in Ellicott City and Columbia.

Elkridge is "Howard County's poor cousin," Acker said.

People who live in the northeastern Howard County community, say the new park and schools projects are long overdue in a rapidly growing area that still needs a community center, a larger senior center and more classroom space for an expanding student population.

For members of the active Greater Elkridge Community Association, it's been an uphill battle to get amenities for the community, which has risen in population as the county continues to encourage higher-density development along U.S. 1.

"We have made requests because we saw the writing on the wall with the growth on the [U.S.] 1 corridor," said Valerie McGuire, a past president of the community association. "We have asked for [new facilities] and I think we have been very patient, but it's difficult when you see your needs being bumped for other needs."

County Executive Ken Ulman said he's trying to satisfy Elkridge residents as he weighs priorities throughout the county. He's heard complaints from residents outside of Elkridge who feel the community got more than its fair share this year.

Ulman's budget, adopted last month by the County Council, includes $33.9 million for projects in Elkridge, whose population has nearly doubled over the past 30 years to about 40,000 residents. Columbia, a city of nearly 100,000, will get $42.7 million in capital projects that include road and sewer improvements, as well as school renovations.

"It's a balancing act. Sometimes these things work in cycles," Ulman said. "I fiercely dispute any concern that Elkridge is being left out."

The county aims to spend $250,000 on plans for doubling the size of the Elkridge library. The county has also spent $1.1 million on 5 acres of land for a new fire station. The county also purchased Belmont — the historic 18th-century estate — for public use, such as a meeting space, but no formal plans have been announced.

Ulman conceded that library upgrades were delayed while the county decided whether to move, rebuild or renovate.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents Elkridge, said that "the perception is there for a reason." Residents have told her they feel the county has "not been keeping up with the growth."

"There's a strong sense of that in the Elkridge community. They have fought ... very hard," Watson said. "They have put themselves on the map."

The community rallied last year after the rail company CSX announced that it was considering Elkridge as a site for a facility that would allow for the transfer of cargo between trains and trucks. After several contentious meetings and a number of complaints from the neighborhood, the company announced this month that Elkridge was no longer being considered as a potential site for the facility.

Watson agreed that the area needs a community center with meeting rooms and a senior center, which is now a single room in the library, but she said it takes a minimum of three years to get county projects built from the time they are conceived.

"The fact that we have as many projects as we have in the budget is good," she said.

While Elkridge residents might envy the county's newest community center in North Laurel, Watson said that facility was 20 years in the making.

Some of Elkridge's issues began before the county began encouraging higher-density developments in the eastern part of Howard.

"This growth in the last 10 years was planned 20 years ago," Watson said. "Elkridge became a popular place for new housing developments." It's the "fastest-growing community it the county in the last 10 years."

Cathy Hudson, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, who has lived in Elkridge all her life, remembers the Elkridge of her youth as "a small town right outside of a big city where people knew each other. You had your IGA [grocery store], and other local business."

But in the 1970s, when a sewer moratorium in the area ended, "it was like the floodgates had lifted," she said. It began with a few townhouse communities and took off from there.

"We can take the growth, but give us the amenities too," she said.

With all the growth in the area, schools have long been a source of contention for residents.

Watson said she first got her start in community issues as a parent, working to get additional schools built along the Montgomery Road corridor to ease overcrowding.

"We've asked for a high school for over a decade — to just have them purchase the land now," McGuire said. "Even if you don't build right now, at least you have the land."

But the county has planned construction only for an elementary and middle school.

McGuire said the county needs to start planning for a new high school now.

Speaking to fellow community association members inside the hall at the volunteer fire station, Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, recalled some of the year's struggles, including the new schools and campaign against the rail transfer site

"This has been a tough year. We've seen a lot of things happen we didn't expect," he said. But now, with newly funded projects on the horizon, he said, "there are some good things happening in Elkridge."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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