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
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."