Despite its popularity and status as one of the county's crown jewels, Centennial Park is barely a quarter-century old. 

The park was created by damming a branch of the Little Patuxent River. It was approved in 1965 by the county commissioners (precursor to the County Council), but the first part didn't open until 1984 and it was three years before it was fully open.

Since the opening, the only new addition has been a small skateboard area, Marshall said.

The other amenities remain the same. A 2.6-mile trail, popular with joggers and walkers, encircles the lake, winding in and out of wooded areas. The lake and the woods are home to a variety of wildlife, including ducks, geese, herons, egrets, turkey vultures, turtles, rabbits, foxes and beavers.

The lake is stocked with a variety of fish and is popular with fishermen. The kayaks and paddleboats available for rent make the park popular with boaters as well.

The boat dock also has a snack bar, and restrooms (not always found in parks) are scattered throughout Centennial.

Centennial also has playgrounds, ball fields and a variety of courts. Nine pavilions are available for rent.

During the summer, well-attended concerts, called "Sunset Serenades," are held on Wednesday evenings.

And, throughout the year, and with growing regularity, the park hosts sporting competitions such as triathlons and other community events. These are the events that especially worry county park officials — and, according to Marshall, prompt the most complaints from nearby residents.

The Columbia Triathlon Association, based in Columbia, sponsors three of those annual events, including the Celebrating Heroes Triathlon, scheduled for Saturday, June 23.

Linda Congedo, the association's director of communications, said Centennial is an ideal location for the events because of the lake, the space for bike racks and the access to west county bike routes. "The whole package works for our group," she said.

She noted that the association pays a fee for the events and tries to take into consideration the concerns of neighbors.

Still, she said, "we understand there is a certain saturation level for the community. … You can only inconvenience people on the roads so many times a year. … I'm sure there's a citizen fatigue that can happen if there are too many events."

'It's a beautiful park'

Regular visitors know that the park's popularity can lead to crowds and parking headaches.

"It's a nice park," said Mohan Gowda, who drives from his home in Elkridge a couple of times a week to run or to walk his dog at Centennial. He motions toward his dog, a 12-week-old English bulldog named Sherlock, who is chewing merrily on the hand of a friendly passerby. "And he really likes it here.

"But sometimes," Gowda added, "especially on long weekends, there are too many people. Plus, the parking can be terrible."

Still, besides the county officials worried about overuse, it's hard to find someone to say a bad word about Centennial Park.

"I think it's beautiful, and they have so much for kids to do," said Denise Varperesian, of Ellicott City, who on a recent Saturday was blowing bubbles for her 4-year-old granddaughter, Ava Jordan, to chase down. "They have a little bit of everything."

Up a small hill, in one of a cluster of three pavilions, county school board member Janet Siddiqui was helping caterers prepare for her annual summer fundraiser.

She said she has been holding the fundraiser at Centennial for the past several years.

"It's a beautiful park, central to Howard County," Siddiqui explained. "What I like about it is, it's grown with Howard County, grown with Columbia. When it started out, these trees were little, and now, look at them.

"It's evolved, just like Howard County and Columbia have evolved."