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In Patapsco Valley, two groups say they want what's best for state park

The Patapsco Valley is an area rich in history and natural resources: that fact, the two groups can agree upon.

But when it comes to planning for the 24.6-mile patch of land that runs along the Patapsco River, stretching from Elkridge to the historic mill town of Daniels, the Patapsco Heritage Greenway and the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club have different ideas about the best way to move forward.

Monday night, both organizations made their case before the Howard County Council, which will soon vote on a new plan with the potential to attract grant money for promoting the area's rich heritage as a vibrant site for milling and commerce and the cradle, some contend, of the Industrial Revolution itself.

Because the Patapsco Valley sits in both Howard and Baltimore counties, both governments have to give the Patapsco Heritage group's plan the go-ahead before it can move to the state for approval. The 294-page plan lays out a set of stewardship, educational, management and economic goals for the heritage area.

Debate over the plan turns on the role that the Patapsco Heritage Greenway Inc., a nonprofit "dedicated to preserving, protecting, interpreting and restoring the environment, history and culture of the Valley," will play in making decisions for the future of Patapsco Valley State Park, which falls within the heritage area under its purview.

PHG members and state officials say the group will have no decision-making power in the park, while the Sierra Club's leadership remains dubious.

In an email sent to its members July 16, the club took issue with the economic component of the PHG's mission, which is to create "opportunities for small business development, job growth and a stronger tax base" in the heritage area, although not necessarily in the state park.

Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said creating an economic link between a state park and nonprofit could create opportunities for inappropriate influence.

"I don't believe it's in the long-term interest of DNR to become dependent, dare I say complacent, at some point," he told the council Monday.

Joanne Heckman, a campaign leader for the club's Maryland chapter, said the group isn't opposed to the concept of a heritage area but doesn't want that area to include the park until a new master plan has been devised to replace the last one, which the group says is outdated.

A master plan could take into account current foot traffic and consider how to deal with higher numbers of visitors because of increased tourism, according to Tulkin.

"It isn't just about managing... resources, it's about understanding the ecosystem of the park," he said. Until a new plan is devised, approving a heritage master plan is "putting the cart before the horse," in the Sierra Club's view.

"Our feeling is simply that environmental stewardship is great, a heritage area is great; one should be inside the park and one should be outside the park," Heckman told the council. "It is not appropriate to give management ability to a private entity for a state park."

And, she added, public input is key. "We don't even necessarily object to anything they're doing, but you'd have to ask the public first," Heckman said.

John S. Wilson, DNR's associate director for land acquisition and planning, said that the state agency would retain complete control over any plans for the park, whether it's in a heritage area or has an up-to-date plan.

"[The PHG] will have no authority over the department," Wilson said. "Our internal review process oversees any development of facilities at the park, so even though we may not have a current plan it doesn't mean that we don't evaluate any potential impacts of uses."

In a letter to the Howard County Council, Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina said that the agency "has been involved in the discussions leading to preparation of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway Management Plan.

"We look forward to continuing the cooperative relationship with the Patapsco Heritage Greenway as part of the effort to combine forces to better sustain the resources within the Patapsco Valley," she wrote.

PHG President John Slater pointed out that the Patapsco Valley has been a designated heritage area since 1998. If its management plan is approved by the counties and then the state, Slater said, "the only change is that we will be eligible for up to $100,000 in grant money."

Wilson said 10 out of 12 of the state's heritage areas included DNR land. "In the 18 years of this program," he said, "there has not been a problem."

Slater said the PHG was very "equally balanced" between historical and environmental interests. "I think the idea of trying to focus and balance both the history and the environment is a unique perspective" that the group can offer as a stakeholder in conversations about the heritage area, he said.

As for waiting until a master plan for the state park is approved, "that's a chicken-and-egg argument," Slater said. "You can't do one without the other -- you can talk in circles forever on that. You need an organization to push the state to get that going, otherwise it will never get going."

Community advocate Grace Kubofcik told the council that taking the park out of the plan would be like "remov[ing] the spine from the heritage area."

Catonsville resident Victoria Goodman testified that her support for the PHG's plan "runs deep in my veins and strong in my heart because my family comes from the valley." She grew up in Daniels and comes from a family that worked in the mills.

"They were hardworking people; theirs is a story worth telling," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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