Towson residents fight plan to move fire station to park

With two swing sets, a plastic jungle gym, a sandbox and a few benches, Towson Manor Park is just a little patch of land on the edge of a neighborhood. On a recent afternoon, it was mostly deserted, except for a group of teens who laughed under a wooden gazebo after school.

But for neighbors, it's a gathering spot and a break from the high-rise buildings downtown and the traffic rumbling by on Towsontown Boulevard.

And they're ready to fight a proposal by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration to replace an aging fire station on heavily developed York Road with a new one at the park site.

"We chose to live in this community because of this park," said Kristen Gerding, a 30-year-old mother who said she takes her two small children to the playground almost every day. "The thought of losing that is just heartbreaking."

The fire station relocation is part of a broader plan announced this week to sell government properties to developers and use the cash to upgrade schools. In Towson, the county is considering moving the fire station — now at the busy corner of Bosley Avenue and York Road — to the park on the southern edge of downtown. Money from the sale of the current fire station site would fund air conditioning at nearby Dumbarton Middle School, the county said.

Neighbors are distributing fliers, organizing meetings and planning a protest rally Thursday at the park to fight the proposal. They say they use the park, which opened in the early 1990s, for Easter egg hunts, neighborhood parties and meeting friends.

"There's a real deficit of green space in the Towson area," said Ed Kilcullen, past president of the Towson Manor Village Community Association, "and yet the green space just keeps getting eaten up."

State Sen. Jim Brochin said Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation when the General Assembly convenes in January that would require state lawmakers from Baltimore County to approve county plans to use parkland for anything other than building schools.

"There needs to be another check in the system so that county government can't do this anymore, or even threaten to do it," said Brochin, a Towson-area Democrat. "I don't understand what this assault on parks is. These are parents swinging their kids, and kids playing in the sandbox. Who is against that?"

Kamenetz's chief of staff, Don Mohler, said the county executive "truly understands the community's attachment" to the park and is trying to find other locations for the fire station.

"We've got engineers looking at other sites, and the county executive is hopeful and optimistic that we'll be able to find an alternate location that doesn't require taking away green space in Towson," Mohler said.

Some say the park doesn't get much use.

"I work right here, so I'm constantly going right by the park," said Wendy Crites, who lives within walking distance of the park and works in downtown Towson as executive director of the firm DMS Development. "There isn't any time of year I've ever seen it busy or active. ... It's a completely underutilized public space."

But Gerding, whose children are 3 and 1, said she and her husband chose to live in Towson over more suburban areas because they wanted to able to walk to the library, farmers' market and other events in town.

She's seen many young families like hers come to the area since she moved in seven years ago.

"That's a good thing," she said. "Do you really want to scare people off by destroying one of the only playgrounds in Towson?"

The park offers some breathing room even for those just passing by, said Paul Hartman, incoming president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.

"It really helps your state of mind," Hartman said.

Residents also worry about a firehouse's blaring noise.

"That siren's going to be going off in the middle of the night," said 86-year-old Earl Mittman, who has lived near Towson Manor Park — in a neighborhood of single-family homes, rowhouses and brick duplexes, as well as more than 120 new townhomes called Towson Green — for more than 40 years.

Ronald Butler, 17, said he goes to the park almost every day after school. Downtown Towson has no movie theater anymore, and there aren't many places to go where you don't have to spend money, the Towson High School senior said.

"We come here just to relax and to chill," said Butler, who was hanging out with friends Tuesday afternoon. "This is a very nice spot to sit."

County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who represents Towson, said he would not support moving the firehouse to a park, and is working with the county administration to find other spots.

"There's a larger dialogue that needs to occur about how we're going to pay for infrastructure and school improvements at a time when the state is cutting back, shoving more responsibilities our way, and when citizens don't want their taxes raised," Marks said.

Properties that could be sold

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has proposed selling three pieces of county land to raise money for school upgrades, especially air conditioning:

•The Towson Fire Station at the intersection of York Road and Bosley Avenue. The station could be moved to Towson Manor Park.

•The North Point Government Center on Wise Avenue in Dundalk. The police precinct at the government center would move to the building that now houses Eastwood Center Elementary, whose students would be moved to another location. Recreational programs at the center would be moved to nearby schools and rec centers.

•The Randallstown police substation on Liberty Road, which would be moved to the county's Vehicle Operation and Management building on the same road.