Phil Hosmer was walking the section of the Ma & Pa Trail between Williams Street and Tollgate Road in Bel Air Tuesday when “I turned the corner and I was stunned by what I saw.”
Along a section several hundred yards long, Hosmer counted at least 30 mature trees removed, including many that were right next to the trail, he said.
“The buffer between the trail and the development under construction was completely removed,” said Hosmer, a board member of the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail Inc., an advocacy group for the trail. “It severely diminishes the experience of the trail user.”
The property where the trees were removed is in Bel Air town limits and owned primarily by the developer of Overlook at Gateway condominiums, which is up the hill from the trail, according to Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for Harford County government. The county owns the trail, which runs through the Town of Bel Air.
As a condition of the town’s approval of the condominium project, the town required the developer build a handicap accessible trail connection, Mumby said.
It’s part of the town’s bicycle and pedestrian plan and it’s another way to have a public connection to the trail, said Kevin Small, director of planning for the Town of Bel Air.
The town also wants the trail to be accessible to the majority of the town’s elderly residents who live in the senior housing communities of Gateway condominiums and English Country Manor, he said.
“We have limited opportunities to create connections to the Ma & Pa Trail, especially in town,” Small said. “So when we have an opportunity to make that connection, we want it be a full connection, one that everyone can use.”
Because of the topography of the land, the only way to build the trail is to create switchbacks, Mumby said. Instead of going straight up or down the hill, the trail will have to weave back and forth along the grade.
“The trail must be less than 5 percent grade, and the only way to achieve that was with a switchback trail, that’s part of the reason the trees are being removed,” she said.
The three switchbacks are mostly on the developer’s property, but the last one is on county-owned property, she said.
Work was continuing Tuesday while Hosmer was walking and on Wednesday, when Lee Jones was walking the trail, many of the tree stumps had been removed and the site was being graded.
Jones said he was “shocked” to see the woods removed.
“Every other place adjacent to development on that stretch maintained at least a narrow strip of legacy trees so I was shocked and saddened to see this mowed down,” Jones posted on his Facebook page. “The Ma & Pa trail is probably the single-most used recreational area for adults in all of Harford County, used by thousands every week. I'm not a zero-growth person but mowing down these trees completely changes the character of that stretch of trail.”
Small assured the area, about a third of an acre, would be replanted.
“The entire area, at least on county property, is going to be replanted,” he said.
Hosmer said he and the Ma & Pa Trail board members are disappointed they were not notified it was happening nor included an any of the planning, especially given their close relationship with the town and the county.
“We are an advocate for the trail. We feel we could have contributed to the planning process to make any new development compatible with the trail adjacent to the site,” he said.
Even if the developer replants, it will take decades for trees to grow to what they were, Hosmer said.
The group voiced its concerns in an email sent to the county and the town on Wednesday.
“It’s devastating to the trail from a user standpoint,” Hosmer said. “It’s ruined that section of the trail.”