On a picture-perfect Saturday in June, the blue sky alive with puffy clouds, the temperature in the mid-70s, Lynda Mischler and Michael Sunderland sat under a tree in Centennial Park playing rummy and explaining why they had traveled so far (her from Ashton, him from Baltimore) to visit a Howard County park.
"Where I live in Montgomery County, to find a park like this you have to drive 45 minutes probably," said Mischler. "The water, the walking paths — this park has a lot. It's a pretty spot to sit and play cards."
"You can relax here," added Sunderland. "We come here to relax."
Nearby, Melissa and Kyle Singleton of Ellicott City are making slow progress walking around the lake with their three children, 5-year-old Aron, 4-year-old Alexa and 2-year-old Tyler.
"Why do we come here?" parroted Melissa. "It's got a nice playground, nice water. It's got ducks and geese — the kids like the ducks.
"Also, it's got woods. There's not many places you can go to walk in the woods around here. That's one of the things I really like about Centennial."
A lot of people really like a lot of things about Centennial Park, a 337-acre collection of woods, trails, playgrounds, ball fields, pavilions, picnic areas and wildlife, all surrounding a picturesque, 54-acre lake.
With its many amenities and central location on Route 108 just west of Route 29, Centennial Park attracts more visitors each year — 2.5 million last fiscal year — than all of Howard County's 23 other parks combined.
"It's a park that's used by the entire county, and also by people from other counties," said County Council member Courtney Watson, who said she has been coming to the park regularly since her daughter, now 21, was an infant.
"It's really one of Howard County's nicest community assets," Watson said. "It's just a beautiful amenity."
But despite all the accolades — or more accurately, because of them — there's trouble in Howard County's paradise. Park officials are worried that Centennial Park's very popularity is endangering it.
"As we say around here, Centennial Park is being loved to death," said John Marshall, bureau chief for parks and program services for the county Department of Recreation and Parks. "It's so popular that even when we don't have any events there, on a nice day there's no place for anybody to park."
Marshall said last week that the county had to close the gates to Centennial four times already this year because no more parking was available.
It's not just a parking shortage that concerns county officials. There's also the spiraling cost of maintaining the park and of hosting the many walkathons, triathlons and assorted other events held there every year — 23 in fiscal year 2012.
And, there are the negative environmental effects from all the visitors, such as damaged or destroyed grassy areas.
Prompted in part by these concerns, Marshall said the county is analyzing the impact of heavy use on Centennial (other parks also are being studied), and what to do about it. The analysis is expected to be finished by the end of the summer and will recommend possible solutions. Already being discussed, said Marshall, are limiting the number of events allowed at the park and adding more parking spaces.
"Caring capacity is the number one concern in the county," Marshall said. Caring capacity, he explained in an email, "speaks to what it takes to care for a park based on its use, or in this case its over-use.
"There is a tipping point in which no matter what you do, if the park or a section of the park is over-used, you can no longer maintain it in its current state."
Last year, Marshall said, the county had to take two multi-purpose fields out of service for over a year "to remediate the soils and reseed the entire area." The fields reopened this spring.
Home to variety of wildlife