The Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, Inc. organization will hold its annul walk for the public this Sunday along the proposed route that would connect the two segments of the trail from Forest Hill to Bel Air.
The popular recreational trail, named for the defunct Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, currently consists of two unconnected sections totaling 5.75 miles, with a gap of approximately two miles between the Forest Hill and Bel Air segments. The northern and central portions of the trail closely follow the railroad's former course.
Participants in Sunday's walk will meet at 1 p.m. at the Williams Street trailhead in Bel Air, where a bus will shuttle them to the starting point at the Melrose Road trailhead off of Bynum Road in Forest Hill.
Walkers will traverse a route that will approximate where the trail could be constructed, using public right-of way that has already been secured by the county for the majority of the route.
"We look forward to the day when Harford County will be home to a continuous trail eight miles long, creating one of the best multi-use trails in Maryland," Phil Hosmer, president of the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, Inc, said in a statement. "In addition to being a premier recreational resource, a completed trail will also be a tremendous economic development and tourism engine for the county."
The trail route is designated in its entirety in the Harford County Master Plan and is currently the most heavily used public parkland in Harford County, according to Hosmer's nonprofit organization, which holds the annual walk to raise awareness of what is needed to close the gap.
Most of the right-of-way through the two-mile gap has been acquired by the county government either by ownership or easement. The final exception is a small portion northeast of North Main Street in Bel Air, near the former site of the Bel Air station, which was the one-time home of Harford Sanitation Services.
Negotiations between the county and the property's current owners, the family of the late Harford State Senator J. Robert Hooper, for an easement through one side of the property along the former railroad bed have been ongoing for several years. Sen. Hooper and his late father started Harford Sanitation, which was sold following the senator's death and moved to Darlington by the new owner, Waste Industries.
Leaders of the trail group said earlier this year they believe the county and the Hoopers finally may be close to an agreement on an easement.
Both County Executive Barry Glassman and Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane have been involved in the talks, Cindy Mumby, the county executive's spokesperson, said Monday. Like Hosmer and other members of the trail group, Bel Air town officials say extending the trail through town will benefit town businesses.
"County Executive Glassman and Town Administrator Jesse Bane have been working hard to come to an agreement on the Hooper property," Mumby said. "These talks have been progressing, and hopefully they will reach an agreement by year's end."
One sticking point, according to David Hooper, a younger brother of the late senator and part owner, has been who will be responsible for any liability if trail users should trespass on the Hooper property, which is industrial and has a number of commercial tenants.
A trail user himself, David Hooper said several months ago that the family didn't want to be viewed as obstructionists but still needed to protect itself legally. He said he expects the joined section of the trail will have the same amount of use that the rest of the trail has, which he noted is substantial.
The current county budget has an appropriation of $2.5 million for constructing the trail connection. According Mumby, the project would be paid for through a combination of county and grant funding. In the design for the connection, a boardwalk, similar to those on the section between Tollgate Road and Annie's Playground in Fallston, will be built through a wetland area near the Harford County Detention Center.
According to its mission statement, Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, Inc. "works in partnership with Harford County Parks & Recreation to make the Ma & Pa trail a great place to be outdoors in Harford County. It also works to preserve the memory of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad."
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The organization has more than 100 members and more than 3,000 supporters on Facebook. For more information about the organization and its annual walk, visit http://www.mapatrail.org.