A new stewardship agreement between the city of Baltimore, MORE (Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts) and the International Mountain Bike Association promises improved mountain bike access to the watershed. (Baltimore Sun Video)
A few times a week, Baltimore bicyclist Brian Wilkerson, 31, can be found hopping logs and carving turns on the scenic, off-road trails around Loch Raven Reservoir.
It's fast, fun exercise that Wilkerson describes as "addictive." The problem is that riding on many of the government-owned trails, while popular, isn't permitted.
That's about to change.
Next week, Baltimore officials are expected to sign a deal to allow cyclists to ride on some of Loch Raven's off-road paths in exchange for helping to manage the trail system.
It's a resolution to a dispute that has lasted for years as the city argued that mountain biking near the city-owned reservoir north of Towson contributes to erosion, and thus pollution getting into Baltimore's drinking water.
Wilkerson, a resident of Baltimore's Belvedere neighborhood, is enthusiastic about the deal. "Everybody is looking over their shoulder at Loch Raven," he said. "It will bring more riders out now they know they can do it legally."
Under the agreement, bike groups, including the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, will work with the city to close or reroute unsanctioned trails. They will improve and help maintain off-road paths on a limited portion of the reservoir's land that will be approved for biking and hiking.
In a statement, the biking groups acknowledged that over generations, cyclists and others created trails at Loch Raven "without consideration for the effects on the reservoir's water quality."
The new plan "will reinstate legal mountain bike and pedestrian use," said Ryan Delaney, a regional director with the International Mountain Biking Association. "Essentially, the idea is to show we're not a detriment to water quality and erosion."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that the Loch Raven deal allows the city to "move forward after decades of disagreement."
"This was a very contentious issue that has existed for a long time," she said. "I'm very proud that we've been able to usher in a solution and a compromise."
The one-year agreement comes as officials also are taking steps to make the city more friendly to bicyclists. On Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake announced that she has formed a Bicycle Advisory Committee to replace a body that had dissolved. And Thursday, the city's planning commission is expected to approve an update to Baltimore's Bicycle Master Plan.
Baltimore has 100 miles of on-street bike lanes, though few are protected by buffers and many stretches are not connected. The mayor said Wednesday that the city plans to add 100 miles of bike lanes over the next 15 years.
Rawlings-Blake appointed attorney Jon Laria, a partner at the Ballard Spahrlaw firm, as chairman of the 11-member Bicycle Advisory Commission, which will work to increase safe cycling options in Baltimore.
Laria said Wednesday that Baltimore needs to catch up with other cities that have many more miles of protected bike lanes.
In January, city officials agreed to pay about $300,000 for the Downtown Bicycle Network, a $1.2 million grid of routes. The network will include what is expected to be the city's best bike lane: a 2.6-mile stretch of Maryland Avenue called a "cycle track," in which cyclists will be protected from traffic by a buffer of parked cars.
The city also is working to create another cycle track on Mount Royal Avenue and to launch a bike-sharing program.
Bicycling safety has been the news in recent months after the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo, who was killed after a collision with a vehicle Dec. 27. Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook, the second-ranking official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol, using a text messaging device while driving and other violations in Palermo's death.
City officials said they plan to install a buffered bike lane on the stretch of Roland Avenue in North Baltimore where Palermo was killed. Baltimore's transportation director, William Johnson, said the agency is allocating $2 million from federal funds in next year's budget to bike-related projects.
"Where we can have a protected bike lane, we will look to implement those," he said.
Though it's in Baltimore County, Loch Raven Reservoir is managed by Baltimore's government, which runs the water system for both jurisdictions. Loch Raven Reservoir is one of three regional drinking water reservoirs that serve about 1.8 million customers of the city system.
Conflict over biking on trails at Loch Raven has existed for years, but reached a peak in 2011 when the city's Department of Public Works attempted a crackdown. Rangers began ticketing riders on off-road trails and threatened to seize bicycles, advocates say.
"You had doctors, firefighters and teachers out on the weekend with their kids, and a ranger would be interrogating them against a tree," recalls state Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "Now everybody's happy. This is big. I really want to commend the mayor and [the bike advocates]. These trails mean a lot to the bikers. They want to maintain them."
The Loch Raven deal goes before Baltimore's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, next week.
Nate Evans, director of the advocacy group Bike Maryland, said Loch Raven is regarded as an optimal place to ride mountain bikes.
"We're going to work to close bad trails together," he said. "We want to make sure the trails that are open work for everybody."
Jed Weeks, president of the local advocacy group Bikemore, called the deal on Loch Raven a "huge first step."
"With the exception of Patapsco [Valley State Park], it's the nearest large network of off-road trails," Weeks said. "The more recreational riders we have, the more opportunity we have to attract people to ride bikes as a form of transportation."
Weeks said he was glad to see the creation of a bicycle commission under Rawlings-Blake. He said such a board had been active under Mayor Sheila Dixon, but had "petered out."
He said his group plans to attend Thursday's planning board meeting to support the city's Bicycle Master Plan.
"It's a very good blueprint for how we should move forward," he said. "Obviously, the thing we really want is for the plan to be turned into action. That's where things have languished. We have great plans, but they don't always come to fruition."