It's been a long time coming.
That's what you'll hear from anyone involved in the 14-plus years of planning and development of Blandair Regional Park, the first portion of which is scheduled to open Saturday, March 17.
"It's been an ongoing labor of love," said County Council member Calvin Ball, who represents and lives in Oakland Mills, where the south end of the park is being built.
"I feel overjoyed about the opportunity for recreation and play areas for folks in the east side of the county, and for everyone to really see it as a great neighborhood amenity. ... It's a culmination of so much work and energy and time and community investment."
A playground and three artificial turf fields, complete with bleachers and press boxes, make up the first portion of the east Columbia park.
While some teams were authorized to practice on the fields this past week, Blandair's official opening will come at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday at 9:30 a.m., with Ball, County Executive Ken Ulman and other local officials on hand.
The grand opening also will serve as the kickoff of the Gary J. Arthur Memorial Lacrosse Tournament, a preseason event for club/select lacrosse teams being held in honor of the late director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks.
"I'm really pleased to be finally opening Phase l," Ulman said. "There is no county regional park on the east side of Columbia. I think it's overdue and it's going to provide a tremendous amenity package for residents of that area and the entire county."
It's not just county officials who are excited.
"I think it's going to be a wonderful asset to our community." Oakland Mills resident Karen Gray said. "It will be really nice to have such a great amenity right there in our backyard."
$55 million park
The 25-acre, $6.7 million Phase l portion of Blandair is located on the south side of the park, just west of Oakland Mills Road. The entire park site, which straddles Route 175 between Thunder Hill Road and Tamar Drive, is 300 acres — about 100 acres on the south side in Oakland Mills and about 200 acres on the north side in Long Reach.
Developing the entire park is expected to cost $55 million and take several years.
"The north side is the more pastoral, natural setting," Ulman said. "The south side is more of the recreational amenities."
The Phase l playground equipment is separated into an area for children ages 2 through 5 and an area for children ages 5 through 12. Blandair will be the first county park to have a playground where the surface is covered in artificial turf.
County park planner Clara Gouin said the soft surface "will reduce any injures that children might have from falls."
The three artificial turf fields, though not the first at county parks, will help accommodate a growing demand for field space, Ulman said.
"It's been a challenge to keep kids off of the fields over the last few weeks," he said, noting the fields are fenced-in and the park area has been blocked off until the opening.
With bleachers, press boxes and overhead lighting, the fields can be used for multiple sports. Yellow lines mark the boundaries for soccer, white for football, red for men's lacrosse and blue for women's lacrosse.
'We love the facilities'
The Atholton High School boy's lacrosse team practiced on the turf fields this week, and team members had positive things to say.
"We love the facilities; they're definitely the most comfortable thing," Matt Peart said, noting the artificial turf helps reduce the risk of injury.
Eliot Tarash said Blandair is "a good location" and will be beneficial for tournaments and rain-outs.
"It's a short drive, close to the school," Brendan O'Malley agreed. He said the artificial turf is "real soft" and "it doesn't hurt as much if you fall."
The team members said they have previously practiced on artificial turf fields at Cedar Lane Park and Rockburn Branch Park.
Troy Stevenson, athletic director at nearby Oakland Mills High School, said the school will likely rent field time at Blandair. He said the school is in need of more field space for fall sports and the turf is a good feature "because you can play and practice on them in inclement weather."
An asphalt path behind the fields connects with the county's bike path, Gouin said. She also noted that everything in the park is wheelchair accessible.
Ball said the park is an important part of the county's efforts to create a walkable community.
"Every part of the county needs some recreation area that's relatively close," he said.
The 300 acres of land where Blandair Regional Park is being built for 200 years was a farm where wheat, corn, soybeans and other crops were grown. Its history traces back to colonial times when it was given as a land grant to the Talbot family.
Over the years, the property has been owned by members of the Dorsey, Howard and Weems families, all of which are prominent historical Howard County families.
The name Blandair came from Theodorick Bland, who bought the land in 1845 when he was chancellor of the state of Maryland. In the early 1900s, Blandair was used as a dairy farm until the Smith family bought the property in 1937 to raise horses.
The county, with assistance from the state's open space program, purchased the land from the Smith family in 1998 for $10.7 million. The land transfer was delayed for three years due to legal issues, so the county did not start working on a plan for the park until 2001.
With the help of a 23-member citizens' advisory committee, a Preliminary Master Plan was approved in 2003 and a final Master Plan in 2008.
Phase I construction began in December 2010 and will be completed this summer, with the addition of a picnic shelter and restroom facility.
The development of Blandair, which will cost an estimated $55 million, will include seven park development phases and one historic renovation phase.
Phase II construction — which will include two baseball fields, a playground, picnic shelter, parking lot and tennis courts on the southeast side of the park, directly across Oakland Mills Road from the Phase I area — could begin this summer, if it's funded in the fiscal year 2013 capital budget.
Ulman said that was "the current plan," but noted that, like every aspect of the budget, the park funding is up in the air until the county finds out what costs may be passed down from the state. He and other county officials said they hope to be able to fund a new phase each fiscal year.
"We see (Blandair) as a real oasis in the heart of Columbia," Ulman said.