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Residents and bike enthusiasts urged the council to pass a vision for bike pathways and awareness initiatives throughout the county at the Howard County Council's monthly legislative hearing on Monday night.
Residents and bike enthusiasts urged the council to pass a vision for bike pathways and awareness initiatives throughout the county at the Howard County Council's monthly legislative hearing on Monday night. (Fatimah Waseem)

A community push to make the county's paths safer and more walkable cycled on as residents and bike enthusiasts pressed the Howard County Council to pass the county's first Bike Master Plan on Monday night.

"This master plan is a plan to make things work," said resident Bill Kelly, 76.

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The plan, Bike Howard, lays out a framework to promote bicycling as a safe and environmentally friendly mode of transport and creates a network of countywide pathways connecting commercial and residential areas. The proposal is designed to fall in sync with the county's complete streets policy, a vision for how streets should be designed, operated and maintained; and existing road resurfacing and development projects.

On the drawing table for years, the plan garnered support from residents and community leaders as a forward-thinking approach to create safer modes of transport, improve public health and encourage a community culture of sustainability.

"It's been more than a short trip to get to this point," said Jack Guarneri, an Ellicott City resident. "The plan has been thoroughly vetted by a large number of people … it is capable of morphing."

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The proposed network of bike paths is purely aspirational. Although short-term projects would cost roughly $32 million, according to Chris Eatough, the county's first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, inclusion of a project in the plan does not guarantee the project will be funded by the county.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation called the plan "a once in a lifetime opportunity" to shape the county by shaping its roads. The plan garnered support from Howard County General Hospital President Steven Snelgrove, the Columbia Association and residents from Highland to Woodbine.

But proponents diverged on a proposed amendment to slash a central pathway along Little Patuxent River next to the Allview community in Columbia and replace it with a path on Broken Land Parkway.

Citing steep banks and flooding concerns, Columbia resident Michael Compson said the path along the river would be especially dangerous for children and dramatically change the "secluded" and "quiet" character of the neighborhood.

"Whenever the river comes up… it's just a mess," Compson said. "People don't live back here but if it's a flash flood [the water] can come up within an hour."

Despite Compson's objections, Allview resident Sally Ryder said the path along the river was a safe and scenic route for residents who otherwise "have to dodge traffic and parked cars through our hilly and winding roads in order to enjoy the great outdoors."

Speaking on behalf of the Columbia Association, which runs its own system of connected pathways, Jane Dembner said the path is a critical connection point to Downtown Columbia.

Resident Herman DeLang said the proposed alternative doesn't make sense and is "dangerous."

"That path is a critical component of the overall plan," DeLang said. "We have many paths that run right behind people's yards. ... I'm not sure why there's a NIMBY attitude for Allview residents."

Roughly 160 people signed a petition opposing a path in the Allview community, according to Columbia resident Ted Markle.

Howard County's first Bicycle Master Plan, known as BikeHoward, is pedaling toward approval as County Executive Allan Kittleman says the initiative has been submitted to the planning board for review.

Proponents for Bridge Columbia, a pedestrian bridge to connect the village of Oakland Mills to downtown Columbia, want the bridge to be part of the plan in order to qualify for future grant funding, said Columbia resident John Slater.

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"If it's not in the plan, you don't have the leg up to get the funding," Slater said. "And this project is really dependent on that."

Highland resident Ronald Stup said the plan should also include accelerated paths for Highland.

"The roads are very unsafe," said Stup, speaking on behalf of the Greater Highland Crossroads Association. "We have substandard unsafe conditions now."

An implementation plan will follow the proposed Bike Howard vision. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is organizing a work group that will recommend changes to incorporate the complete streets policy into the county's design manual.

Mold investigations

A proposal by Council Chairman Calvin Ball to task the Environmental Sustainability Board to review mold reports commissioned by the county's school system came under question Monday night.

Citing the board's draft minutes, Councilman Greg Fox said the board lacked specific expertise required to conduct a meaningful review of existing mold reports.

"We don't want to be in a position where we're still questioning," Fox said.

Although the board previously provided general policy input, the board does not have the history or the expertise to evaluate scientific methodologies and protocols requested, wrote James Caldwell, director of the Office of Community Sustainability, in a March 21 letter.

"I do not believe the [board] was established in order to provide recommendations on this subject to the level of details that the council has requested," Caldwell wrote.

Ned Tillman, the board's chairman, said the board voiced its concerns to the council chairman and will examine different options going forward. Ball said it was premature to make comments based on the board's draft minutes.

The Kittleman administration is currently reviewing a proposed agreement with the school system to conduct independent air quality assessments of all public schools in the county.

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