Phil Hosmer admits he’s getting a bit anxious about the planned Ma & Pa Trail connection from Bel Air to Forest Hill.
“Do you realize it was 2016 when the county got the final easement?” Hosmer asked Saturday afternoon, as he walked near the former home of Harford Sanitation in Bel Air, which was the last easement needed to build the connect from the Williams Street trailhead in Bel Air to Blake’s Venture Park off Bynum Road in Forest Hill.
Hosmer is a longtime member and current president of the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail Inc., the local nonprofit that advocates for what members say without hesitation is Harford County’s most popular park.
Hosmer and other members hosted their annual connection walk for about 50 other people Saturday afternoon.
The walk follows the approximate route of the planned 2.5-mile connection and has been held for a decade to bring awareness of the missing link in the trail which has two existing segments: from Bel Air to Annie’s Playground and from Friends Park in Forest Hill to Blake’s Venture Park. Approximate being a relative term, because there are a number of places that really aren’t walkable at this time either because they are too wet or too overgrown with brush.
After a several year effort to acquire rights of way for the planned connection, Harford County is finally poised to build it. Engineering has largely been completed and in the coming weeks the county will begin building the first segment — from Williams Street to a crossing of busy North Main Street in Bel Air in front of Independent Brewing.
This is considered the first of three segments of the extension, according to the county and will include installation of overhead signals and a pedestrian island separating the two traffic lanes.
A $281,000 contract contract for connecting the trail from Williams Street across Main Street was approved by the county Board of Estimates on Sept. 25.
County administration spokesperson Cindy Mumby said they are still awaiting access permits from the state, since it’s a state road.
“Folks may see activity begin in mid-November, but this is only an estimate,” Mumby said via email.
Once the work begins, it will take 60 to 90 days to finish, weather permitting.
Once the crossing is completed, the trail will be built from North Main Street to the corner of North Avenue and Creek Park Road in the Irwin’s Choice development just north of Bel Air Memorial Gardens. This is considered the second segment of the connection project.
That’s another relatively short stretch, and it doesn’t involve stream or wetlands crossings that will be required north of that point, and Hosmer said the county hopes to complete the segment during 2020 and then open that part to the public. The remaining stretch won’t be completed until 2021, or at least that is the current estimate.
Harford County has recently been awarded nearly $4 million in funding from the Transportation Alternatives Program, a federal program administered by the state, for construction of segments two and three of the trail connection, according Mumby. Segment three is from North Avenue to Blake’s Venture.
Completion of the full connection will forge a continuous trail of 7.5 to 8 miles between Annie’s Playground and Edgeley Grove Park in Fallston through Bel Air and on to Forest Hill, near the site of one of the remaining stations from the old Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, for which the trail is named.
The group taking Saturday’s connection walk met at the Williams Street trailhead in Bel Air, where Hosmer and other members of the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail group talked about their organization and the effort to build the connection.
The group included people of all ages, a dog and several of the trail monitors who the Ma & Pa Heritage group oversees along the existing trail. Also joining the group was Cathy Burley, Harford County’s Parks and Recreation director.
Burley said the connection project has required “a continuous push, and you guys have done a tremendous job keeping it in the limelight.”
The group then boarded a school bus for the ride to Blake’s Venture and the start of the walk.
Blakes Venture to Bel Air Bypass
Blakes Venture Park off Melrose Lane and Bynum Road is the south trailhead for the Forest Hill segment of the trail which goes about 1.7 miles to Friends Park near the intersection of Route 24 and Jarrettsville Road.
Leaving Blakes Venture, the group walked north along Bynum Road, which seemed a bit counter-intuitive since the old railroad crossed Bynum Road south of Melrose by the old Spenceola Cannery building.
The connection route goes north, however, to Water Way near the junction of Route 1 and the Hickory/Bel Air Bypass, where the walkers walked down Water Tower Way a short distance and then headed south on the shoulder of the Bypass for a short distance.
According to Hosmer and the mapping of the connection done by Frederick Ward Associates, there will be a trail from Water Tower Way south that parallels the southbound lanes of the Bypass. The area, however, is overgrown and has to be cleared.
After walking 100 yards or so, the group walked down a steep bank where a path had been cleared by trail volunteers.
At this point, the group walked through a tunnel under the Bypass. Built years ago when the Bypass was extended to Hickory, the tunnel was put there at the insistence of county officials and local state legislators with the eventual construction of the trail in mind.
Coming out of the south end of the tunnel, which is similar to the tunnel that carries the existing Bel Air to Fallston segment of the trail under Route 24 near Harford Mall, the route of the extension heads into a heavily wooded area.
This could not, however, be walked Saturday because it’s a wetland area. When the trail connection is built, this portion will have a long boardwalk, according to the Frederick Ward Associates map. Hosmer pointed to several pink ribbons marking the trail survey through the boggy area.
“We’re fortunate that when this area was surveyed they did not find any [northern] bog turtles,” Hosmer said. If they had, the project could have been held up or a different route required, he said.
The walkers headed down the shoulder of the northbound lanes of the Bypass. A short distance from the northbound entrance ramp from Rock Spring Road, the group scurried down into the woods again and began walking south.
Bypass to North Avenue
Once into the woods, the walking group negotiated more boggy conditions while walking parallel to an embankment that likely was part of the railroad, which ran its last train in 1958 and was dismantled over the ensuing year.
Hosmer said acquiring rights of way and easements to build the trail connection – as well as some parts of the existing trail system – was a “painstaking process,” because when the railroad, which ran between Baltimore and York, Pa., went out of business, all of its track rights-of-way reverted to the adjoining private property owners.
The first segment of the trail, built in the mid-1990s between Williams Street and Tollgate Road, required little in the way of rights-of-way acquisition because it goes through county-owned property such as Heavenly Waters and County Home parks and the Route 24 extension was built with the pedestrian tunnel to accommodate the future trail.
While parts of the trail route are close to the old railroad, the majority of the trail is not. There were instances, however, such as the stretch between Blakes Venture and Forest Hill, where the county required developers who owned parts of the old railroad to provide future trail easements.
At this stage, the walkers were following Bynum Run through the woods behind the Harford County Detention Center. Also paralleling the stream is the sewer line between Bel Air and Forest Hill. The covers were off two of the manholes, possibly from some of the recent heavy rains.
Organizers of Saturday’s walk had constructed a makeshift bridge to cross Bynum Run, and the walkers traversed an area which had once been the Town of Bel Air’s dump, before it was closed in the 1960s and the land turned over to the county to build the detention center.
The group came through a particularly boggy area, where another boardwalk is planned, crossed another small stream on a makeshift bridge and then walked parallel to a group of condo buildings before reaching the North Avenue bridge across Bynum Run.
The group climbed up an embankment and then walked a short distance to Creek Park Drive, where it turned south again.
North Avenue to Moores Mill Road
At the corner of North Avenue and Creek Park Drive, Hosmer pointed out an open grassy area in front of some woods and across from a condo building.
When the trail connection is built, he said, the county plans to put a parking lot for the trail users on the grassy area. It would be on what was the railroad bed and, according to the map, the future trail will actually come through the woods behind that point from Bynum Run.
The Irwins Choice development was another where the developer was required by the county to provide future trail easements.
From Creek Park Drive, the route of the trail goes parallel to a group of townhouses along what would have been the railroad bed and then reaches Bel Air Memorial Gardens.
Again, the trail route follows the edge of the cemetery in the approximate location of the railroad and then jogs a little farther south to the edge of the bamboo forest that has grown up on the edge of the cemetery until reaching Moores Mill Road.
Moores Mill Road to N. Main
The county is about to begin rebuilding Moores Mill Road from Rock Spring Road to Hickory Avenue, which will involve widening the road and constructing sidewalks.
According to Hosmer, a crossing with flashing lights is planned for the trail, about the spot where the railroad would have crossed the street 60 years ago.
Most of the stretch between Moores Mill and North Main is developed. Ma & Pa Road south of Moores Mill is so named because it was built on the bed of the old railroad.
Walkers followed Ma & Pa Road to where it dead ends. When the trail is built, it will go through a narrow area between the former Harford Sanitation property and homes along Cressy Road.
Hosmer said the area behind the Hooper/Harford Sanitation property has become overgrown since the county acquired the right of way two years ago and volunteers couldn’t clear it in time for Saturday’s walk.
Instead, the group walked a short distance to Cressy Road and then followed it to North Main Street, walking south to where the trail will cross in front of Independent Brewing. From there, the connection will follow Ellendale Street to where it meets Williams and the existing trailhead.
N. Main crossing
That route is a bit off from the railroad, which ran through what is now The Mill of Bel Air property where the old feed mill building, since dismantled, was. The Bel Air station was on the other side of North Main on the site of what today is a self storage building.
Hosmer said he was pleased with the turnout Saturday and, although he and other organizers had talked about this being the last one, he said later they might reconsider next year, depending on what construction is happening.
“I just hope I’m still able to walk when the connection is completed,” he said, referring to the years it’s been in the making.