A bald eagle glided majestically to a bare treetop; a pair of red-tailed hawks perched in another tree. Wild ducks bobbed on the tidal ponds. A blue heron rose from the marsh grass. Traces of foxes were evident, and deer hoofprints dented the soft earth.
The only jarring element in this peaceful picture: the silhouettes of graders and bulldozers leveling a 10-acre section of Southwest Area Park, at the mouth of the Patapsco River in Baltimore Highlands, for two long-delayed baseball diamonds and a comfort station.
Several local conservationists have inveighed against the project but, after conferring with county officials, conceded that the problem has been more in perception than in substance. They have arranged to tour the park Jan. 2 with John F. Weber III, director of recreation and parks, to explain their misgivings.
To Steve Stover, 50, of Relay, chairman of the Audubon Society's Patapsco River Committee who has spent much of his life on the river, the work that began last month represents destruction of the last natural area on the lower tidal reach of the river.
Stover and other activists, including Dave Pardoe of Columbia, a founder of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, who tramped the area this month, say their ideal would be that the 236 acres be left as a wildlife habitat, one of the best in the Baltimore area.
Realistically, however, they would like the development to be minimally intrusive on the natural life. "We're trying to catch it before it goes too far," said Francis Fazenbaker of Lansdowne, ++ who said he has fished in the ponds and tramped the park wilds for years.
But to county recreation and environmental officials, the project is no sinister plot to destroy a natural area but completion of an amenities plan that was drawn up nearly 20 years ago and delayed repeatedly because of budget constraints.
Jean Tansey, a landscape architect for the county, finds the complaints ironic because Southwest Area Park is not a natural wetland but a former dump, an active landfill until 1977 that has now become heavily vegetated and in which tidal ponds have developed.
"It's amazing that what was a landfill is now considered a pristine natural area," Tansey said. A variety of animal and bird life, including migrating waterfowl, inhabits the park, "but we checked on habitat, and it showed no eagles nesting there and no endangered species," she said.
Community activists who fought for the park for years are pleased that the project has begun but resentful that it has taken so long.
"I'm delighted, completion is long overdue," said Berchie L. Manley, a former County Council member who was active in the Southwest Coalition before her election to the council in 1990. "People in the community utilize the park and will utilize it even more when this is done."
Marge Miller, president of Baltimore Highlands Recreation Council, said she has been active in the area for nearly 34 years and has taken the floor at public meetings to demand that the park be completed.
"I feel they've spent millions all over the county and nothing on us because we're at the tail end of the county. It's about our turn," Miller said.
Baltimore County bought the property in 1968 for $558,710, using federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds and allowed its continued use as a landfill for another decade. An improvement plan -- the basis for the current work -- was approved in 1979 after meetings to determine community interests.
The first phase, completed in 1986, included the entrance road and the milelong park drive; water and sewer connections; a parking lot; tennis courts and picnic facilities. A caretaker's house and a radio-controlled model airplane field were completed in 1991.
The ball fields and boating facilities are the second phase of development. No additional work is planned once they are completed, in late 1997 or early 1998, Goodwin said.
The developed area will occupy 14 acres, said Tansey, the county landscape architect. It will include the baseball diamonds, which will not be lighted for night play; their parking lot; the comfort station; and eventually a boat-launching ramp, canoe storage building and a 20-car parking lot on the river side of the park.
"The amenities are slight compared to what will be left in its natural state," said David J. Goodwin, Department of Recreation and Parks maintenance supervisor for park improvements.
Goodwin noted that the road to the boating facilities will be an improvement of the existing graveled road that was used in the landfill work. The road crosses one culvert, which is clogged with branches and debris and which will be reconstructed to improve the flow of water between two ponds, Goodwin said.
A second culvert separating two other ponds just off the river, will be replaced by a pedestrian-bicycle bridge allowing the ponds to merge below the proposed boat-ramp area. A third will be enlarged to eliminate flooding during heavy rains.
A proposal for a golf course in the park was scrubbed years ago, Goodwin said, and more recent proposals for a driving range or a pitch-and-putt course were abandoned.
Yet preservationists and county officials continue to quibble over the project.
Stover, the Audubon Society chairman, questioned whether an environmental impact study was done before development began.
Pat Farr, who handles environmental impact review for the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said a review has been done and is continuing as the work has begun.
The development plans obey the requirements of the Critical Areas Law for protection of wetlands and the Chesapeake Bay, including setbacks for construction from tidal and nontidal waters and a new type of sediment control fence, Farr said.
"The plan provides a mix of active and passive recreational opportunities while leaving the majority of the park undisturbed," she said. "It will not harm the park environment."
Pub Date: 12/26/96