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Traffic calming, pedestrian-bike improvements, planned for Bel Air's Plumtree Park area

Bel Air town officials hope to revitalize the Howard Park neighborhood by slowing down area traffic and making pedestrian improvements. (Bryna Zumer, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Bel Air town officials hope to revitalize the Howard Park neighborhood by slowing down area traffic and making pedestrian improvements, planning director Kevin Small explained at a public workshop Wednesday.

The project, for which $40,000 has been dedicated so far for preliminary engineering, would focus on calming traffic along Thomas Street, the major thoroughfare running through the mostly-residential area west of downtown Bel Air, Small said.

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"We want to also be able to make it so going to Howard Park on that street is just as nice as anywhere else in the neighborhood," Small told roughly 19 people at Bel Air's Town Hall Wednesday. "There's a lot of potential in Howard Park, nice big lots... I think it will start the ball rolling."

The major change would be narrowing Thomas Street from 40 feet to 24 feet wide, primarily by extending the sidewalks, with the goal of slowing traffic.

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"We are trying to make that road the proper width, so there's no issues with people opening up car doors and creating conflicts," Small said.

Plumtree Park would therefore gain 16 feet in width; the commercial part of Thomas Street would stay the same.

The parallel George Street, meanwhile, would have 16 feet of parking space added to its existing 24-foot-wide travel lanes, Small said.

A path for pedestrians and bicyclists would be treated separately from vehicular traffic, with an 8-foot-wide path that would be stone dust, pressed asphalt or pervious paving, according to the project plan.

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Curbs, sidewalks and some trees between Bond and Hays streets would also be repaired or replaced, handicap ramps would be completed, pedestrian crossings would be delineated and street lights, as well as other site amenities, may be added to match the Main Street "acorn" fixture, according to project plans.

All private driveways would have full access to the road.

Construction would not start until at least the spring of 2017, he said. The town hopes to apply for grant funding starting this fall. Small said the project would be funded entirely by outside sources, not the town.

Small noted the town has already invested about $600,000 in the area around Plumtree Park, primarily by "daylighting," or opening up, Plumtree Run. New playground equipment, lighting and a gazebo were installed in Plumtree Park recent years.

"We are not done. We want to continue by doing improvements to both Thomas and George Street," Small said.

Fran Johnson, who has lived in the area for 15 years, said the park used to be populated at night with "not great people."

"I think the improvements done to Plumtree have done a tremendous job," she told Small. "It's used much more by families, by teenager types, and it's made a much nicer community feel to the park, and what you are doing here is continuing that continuum."

"It can be a spark of revitalization for all of Howard Park, which is at a turning point," Johnson said.

Small said he hopes the new project will do exactly what she said.

He added the state wants the town to accommodate more stormwater management practices, and "this is a good opportunity to put what they call some bioretention areas in."

Phillip Rhudy, of Fallston, who is planning to open a brewery on Main Street and is on the board of directors for the Ma & Pa Trail, suggested providing more amenities for the many skateboarders around downtown Bel Air.

He said small rails, steps and boxes could be a good idea and have been done in other cities.

"I think it would give the kids a place to go," he said, noting the Thomas-George improvements would be "a good opportunity" to look at the economy of the two local skate shops, as a lot of kids who skateboard come by themselves from the Brentwood Park area.

Small said the town can definitely look at incorporating that, so skateboarders would not be in the middle of the street.

Trail connections?

A more ambitious piece of the project, which would involve working with Harford County, would connect the Ma & Pa Trail and Kelly Fields to the end of Thomas Street.

The ultimate vision for that is to allow bicyclists or pedestrians to go in a loop between Williams Street, Howard Park and the Ma & Pa Trail, he said.

"We know most of the people use the Ma & Pa Trail for exercise, for relaxation. Most are not going to work, going to shop," he explained. "We want to be able to provide those convenient routes that have been kind of planned out, that don't have as many conflicts with streets."

In response to one point from an audience member, Small said he learned recently some homeless people were living in wooded areas near where the connections would be.

He said typically they move on when trails get more popular or used by more people.

"We would rather not have people camping out in those woods," Small said.

More information on the town's plans is available at http://www.belairmd.org/402/Thomas-Street-Project.

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