Bridge's fate is focus of controversy Residents oppose county's plans for Sheppard Lane; Symbol of rural west; Local government's handling of hearings also irks community


For Howard County officials, the Sheppard Lane bridge is a dangerous slab of concrete, too narrow for more than one car and too rundown to hold anything heavier than a pickup truck.

However, for nearby residents who cherish every quirk in the road and every oak tree by its side, the 24-foot-long span over the Middle Patuxent River is an enduring symbol of western Howard's rural lifestyle in the face of encroaching suburbia.

Everyone agrees that the bridge needs fixing.

After all, it was built in 1927, and repairing it has languished on the county's agenda since 1977.

But how to fix it -- and who will help make that decision -- is testing the 2-year-old county law that aims to preserve 60 thoroughfares deemed "scenic roads."

Three scenic road projects up for review this summer -- along Sheppard Lane, College Avenue and Gorman Road -- are the first to cause a fuss since the law was passed in 1994.

The law says officials should try to avoid construction on roads that offer views of forests, farms, streams and historic districts.

"A councilman once told me that Sheppard Lane was a case study for scenic road legislation," said Joyce Kelly, who lives near the bridge and leads the Woodmark Community Association. "Well, then this bridge project is also the case that shows how the county is thumbing its nose at scenic roads."

Kelly and about 10 other residents are urging county public works officials to make only minimal repairs to the Sheppard Lane bridge, fearing that a big and very strong structure would detract from the natural surroundings and attract noisy, exhaust-spewing trucks.

They also say plans to raise the bridge 5 feet add unreasonable costs.

But above all, they are outraged that nearby trees were cleared by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and that the county received bids on bridge repair before two public hearings were held.

They say the hearings should have preceded construction along a scenic road.

"The hearings are a sham," said Kelly, sitting on the bridge's guardrail. "There's no community involvement unless we scream."

The bids were received in late June and the trees were cut down Aug. 8.

The hearings were held July 9 and Aug. 13.

The county's public works director, James M. Irvin, said the law requires only that the hearings be held -- not necessarily before bidding on the project begins.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said there has been "adequate" public input on the issue of repairing the bridge over the past few years -- in public and private meetings about the county's purchase of nearby land from a private owner.

"Scenic road legislation does not stop us from making improvements," Ecker said. "In hindsight, we never should have had the [Aug. 13] meeting."

A similar dispute -- involving another scenic route, Gorman Road in North Laurel -- has arisen at public works hearings since May.

Residents complained that a company -- hired by the county schools to build a road that would intersect Gorman Road and lead to a new school -- had already cut down trees in April, before the "scenic roads" public hearing.

Irvin said the public works department permitted the clearing because the work was viewed as part of the school project.

At the Aug. 13 meeting, the public works board's vice chairman, Edward H. Griffith, said the community's complaints over county handling of the Sheppard Lane and Gorman Road projects are valid.

"I'm fairly distressed to hear that within a three-month period of time, construction advanced on two scenic roads with seemingly little communication between the public and county agencies," he said.

County officials say they didn't know ahead of time that BGE was cutting down the trees south of the Sheppard Lane bridge Aug. 8 to make room for telephone poles when the road is realigned.

They add that public safety officials demanded a head start on the bidding process in early June.

The bridge, which the county estimates is used by 1,500 vehicles a day, has the lowest structural rating -- seven out of 100 -- of any bridge in the county, and forces some fire and rescue vehicles and all school buses to take lengthy detours around it.

"The bridge is in disarray, and I think we're at the point where we can't afford to take any more time," said Elizabeth Calia, who supervises county transportation projects and water management. "We've done our homework with the community."

The county even agreed to several changes suggested by residents: The new road's shoulders will be 3 feet wide instead of 4; guardrails will be wooden instead of metal; and the bridge's sides will be stone instead of concrete.

But county officials are holding firm that the new bridge must be 5 feet higher to prevent flooding from a "100-year storm," a worst-case storm that statistically occurs once a century.

Backing county engineers are school officials and county rescue workers who want their vehicles to be able to cross the bridge, which has a 3-ton limit.

Some volunteer fire companies still cross it, despite the hazard.

Glenn Johnson, transportation director for county schools, said detours taken by school buses to avoid the bridge cost about $5,000 per year.

Fire officials note that a detour added about four minutes to a Clarksville engine's response to a burning mobile home in January.

"No question about it. Repairing the bridge could save valuable time," said Lt. Sean Kelly, spokesman for the county's fire and rescue department.

The county began advertising the bridge project June 6 -- a month before the first public hearing July 9.

Twelve companies bid on the project by June 27.

The lowest bid came from Richard S. Klein Inc., which offered to replace the bridge for $699,999.99, said Patricia Nater, the public works' purchasing department secretary.

County officials say a contract hasn't been signed but they want construction to start this fall.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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