First 25 acres of Blandair Park could open in late fall

A nearby place for children to play, adults to exercise and families to relax — the recreational outlet east Columbia residents have been waiting years for — is finally coming to fruition as construction is under way at Blandair Regional Park.

"Now those on the east side of Howard County, including our community residents who live in Long Reach and Oakland Mills, will have a park that is much more easily accessible," said County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who represents the area. Most people from east Columbia have been going to Centennial Park, he said.

Construction crews have been working since December on the 25-acre, Phase I portion of Blandair. 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.

"It's been a slow incremental process, but to see it actually break ground is exciting," Columbia resident Bridget Mugane said. Mugane, who lives on Sealed Message Road just next to the southeast portion of the park, served on a 23-member citizen advisory committee that helped develop the Blandair master plan.

Phase I work, which includes building three synthetic turf multi-purpose athletic fields, a playground, a picnic shelter and a 425-space parking lot, is taking place on the south side, just west of Oakland Mills Road. That part of the park is expected to be open to the public late this fall or early next spring, according to John Byrd, the director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks.

Mike Williams, coordinator of athletics for the public school system, said the turf fields will provide more resources for athletic teams, especially Oakland Mills High School, which will be connected to the park through a pathway being developed in the first phase.

"The more facilities that we have, the better opportunity we have for scheduling and rescheduling (games)," he said. "It gives our east side schools closer options and more flexibility."

Blandair, a roughly $55 million project, will be completed in eight phases. The capital budget for fiscal year 2012, which began July 1, includes $2.1 million for the remainder of Phase I construction and Phase II designs.

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 — would begin next July, if it's approved for fiscal year 2013 funding, Byrd said.

"If we can continue to get funding, we'll probably enter a new phase each fiscal year," he said. With that timeline, the park is slated to be complete in 2019.

Ball said that is one of his goals.

"Every year that I've been on the council, that's been one of my top priorities, ensuring funding for Blandair," he said.

'Good blend of features'

In addition to the Phase I and Phase II elements, Blandair is planned to include a skate park and multi-purpose building on the south side, four softball fields and two volleyball courts on the north side and playground areas, picnic areas and recreational and nature trails on both sides.

"It's a good blend of features," Byrd said. "It (will) have what a lot of other parks have."

But unlike other county parks, Blandair will have a three-acre children's garden, a feature Byrd said the community requested. The park also will have an environmental education area with a small nature center, which will serve as a complement to the Robinson Nature Center opening in west Columbia this September. These features will all be on the north side.

Blandair will be the second largest developed park in the county, next to Elkridge's 415-acre Rockburn Branch Park, Byrd said. Recreation and Parks also manages the undeveloped Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, which spans 1,021 acres.

The county, with assistance from the state's open space program, purchased the land for Blandair in the late 1990s from the Smith family, which had farmed the land since the late 1930s. The name Blandair came from Theodorick Bland, who owned the land in the mid 1800s when he was chancellor of Maryland.

Mugane said she is thankful the Smiths did not want to sell the land when Columbia was developed.

"Otherwise, we would have hundreds of town homes and lots of traffic on 175," she said.

Without the Smith property, Byrd agreed that a regional park in east Columbia would have never been possible because of all the smaller parcels the county likely would have had to acquire.

The park includes a 28-acre historic easement on the north side of the park to retain some of the farm structures, including the manor home, which is being restored.

Neighbors take 'active interest'

Though many east Columbia residents, like Mugane, are excited about the park, some weren't always happy with the county's plans.

"The neighbors here in these subdivisions have taken a very active interest in the park," Mugane said.

When the master plan was being developed, Mugane and other residents who live near the southeast end of the park fought against plans that had the two baseball fields and the skate park too close to their homes. Now that those elements are planned more in the center of the south side of the park people in her 95-townhome subdivision are happy.

During the planning process a few years ago, Andrea LeWinter, a representative for the Glenmont Blandair Park Coalition, said residents on the north side of the park wanted to see a large buffer between the homes and the park, smaller pavilions and playgrounds and less ambient lighting.

"At the close of the last set of hearings, we were satisfied," she said. "We certainly intend to stay on top of it and monitor the situation."

LeWinter said residents in her 257-home subdivision also had concerns about a proposed park access point from Summer Hollow Lane, but the county has agreed to work with the community when designing that phase of the park.

"I think generally what we're looking for is low-impact development," LeWinter added.

In 2003, Columbia architect Bob Moon formed the Thunder Hill Park Alliance to promote the use of the former Smith property as a nature park and environmental area. Though his plans for the entire park have not been included in the master plan, the children's garden was added largely because of his group's efforts.

Now, Moon is pushing for the children's garden to be the first project developed on the north side.

"It is such a unique opportunity to do something great," he said. "It is where (children) will learn to be stewards of the natural world."

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