Facing mounting public criticism, the Maryland State Highway Administration has postponed a road-improvement project in northern Harford County that called for the detonation of scenic rock formations in Rocks State Park.
State highway officials said the public's objections helped persuade the department to delay and reassess the Route 24 Slope Protection Project, which called for blasting away portions of the hillsides along a stretch of Route 24 near Pylesville known as Rocks Road.
The slopes bear many of the stone outcroppings that give Rocks State Park its name.
"As a result of [public] feedback, SHA and its partner agencies are re-evaluating ... proposed alternatives and postponing the project until at least fall 2010," wrote Kirk G. McClelland, director of the Office of Highway Development for the SHA, in a statement last week.
Highway officials began developing the plan in 2003 in the wake of findings that Deer Creek, which runs alongside Rocks Road, had eroded the creek's embankment. The embankment serves as a foundation for the road, which winds through the wooded area 14 miles north of Bel Air.
The $9.25 million project called for breaking up some of the formations to allow the road to be moved as much as 20 feet away from the creek.
SHA officials were expecting to seek bids on the explosives work in the next few weeks, according to The Dagger, an online news site. The plan would have closed portions of Rocks State Park from June to September this year and another portion during the same months in 2011.
Word of the plan sparked widespread opposition. Deborah Bowers, who grew up in the area, said she first learned of it in a Dec. 6 e-mail sent by a neighbor.
She termed it a "monstrous" idea, one that the state should have presented earlier.
"I could not believe the State Highway Administration would even consider the idea of blasting away these beautiful hillsides with their rock outcroppings," she said. "It would permanently change the character of the place."
Dozens of residents attended two December meetings at which SHA officials presented details of the plan, many of them peppering the presenters with questions.
Shortly after Christmas, Bowers and several neighbors organized an action committee, Save The Rocks, a panel of 12 local residents who contacted legislators, called officials of the Department of Natural Resources and set up a Facebook page laying out their case against the plan.
As of Friday, more than 5,700 people had signed on as "fans" of the site, where the tone of comments ranged from thoughtful opposition to angry defiance.
"So much of Harford County's scenic beauty has already been lost to development and 'progress,' " wrote one fan, Amanda. "They can't take the Rocks, too." Many suggested that the state use pilings or other restorative techniques to shore up the creek's sagging banks rather than blast on the west side of Rocks Road.
County Councilman Chad Shrodes and Maryland state Del. Donna Stifler, whose districts include the park, oppose the project. So does state Sen. Barry Glassman, who represents Harford County.
In his statement, SHA's McClelland acknowledged several of the public's objections, including concerns over the park's natural resources and worries over the timing of closures.
"We at SHA recognize the importance in listening to feedback from our customers," he wrote. "Over the next several months, SHA will consider the public comments and present its new range of alternatives at a public meeting to be held later this year."
The department would consider alternate means of stabilizing the creek bank as well as the possibility of moving the roadbed a lesser distance, he added.
A third public meeting on the proposed project is scheduled for November.