Two powerful personalities collide in debate over Patapsco Valley future; Fierce discussion fueled by different park visions


Like many disputes, the one over the future of the Patapsco Valley boils down to a clash between two powerful personalities.

On one side, there is Charles L. Wagandt, a well-connected Roland Park developer and preservationist who bought and revitalized the historic mill town of Oella, along the banks of the Patapsco River in Baltimore County.

Wagandt has devoted thousands of hours to creating a trail network along the riverbanks in Baltimore and Howard counties in an attempt to revitalize the area's image and attract tourists to its shops, restaurants and museums.

On the other side, there is Stephen M. Doyle, a federal prosecutor who lives adjacent to Patapsco Valley State Park in St. Denis, a small Baltimore County community along the river.

He has devoted his professional skills -- and much of his free time and money -- to fighting Wagandt's project, known as the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, which Doyle believes will damage the river, his town and the park.

If not for Wagandt, the effort to create the greenway might never have gotten off the ground. And if not for Doyle, the opposition might not be as strong as it is.

They are unlikely foes. Both are nature lovers, avid joggers and hikers. They are well-educated -- Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania graduate school for Wagandt, Loyola College and Duke University Law School for Doyle. They have roots in the Baltimore area -- Wagandt in Roland Park, Doyle in Ellicott City.

And both are passionate about the river valley, saying they want more than anything to save it from the ravages of development and suburban sprawl.

"Something wonderful can happen here," Wagandt says, describing his vision of a network of trails in the Patapsco Valley. "I feel a responsibility to take what few talents I've got and put them to use here to try to share this with other people."

Doyle says Wagandt's description of the project masks its true nature. He calls it "an ambitious economic/tourism development plan that will destroy the fragile river valley ecosystem of the Patapsco Valley State Park."

Their philosophical clash has fueled sometimes heated public debates over the project at community meetings, as planners try to gain support for the project.

There is no set decision date; the funding would come from a state program that sets aside $1 million a year to support such projects. But it already has received $135,000 in mostly public money, which has paid for proposals from consultants.

Residents of Relay and St. Denis -- due, some believe, to Doyle -- already have opted out of the greenway plan in a recent referendum. Elkridge and Oella residents are debating whether they want to be a part of it.

Ellicott City residents, who might gain the most financially from the greenway, are divided over the project.

Wagandt, 74, is a history buff and a well-known civic activist. Born in Catonsville, he is the great-grandson of William J. Dickey, the man who founded Oella and the Oella mill in the late 19th century.

After the mill closed in 1972, Wagandt purchased much of the town -- about 80 acres. One of his goals, he said, was to make money. But he also wanted to provide a home for former millworkers.

For 11 years, he fought to get public water and sewers for Oella, finally succeeding in 1984.

Wagandt's supporters often call him a visionary, a man who makes seemingly impossible dreams come true.

"He's one of those rare people that has a vision and acts on it," said Gary Maule of Ellicott City, who has known Wagandt for 20 years.

Four years ago, led by a dream to preserve the history of the valley, Wagandt assembled a team of volunteers, enlisted pro bono work from landscape architecture firms and wrote letters to Congress members asking for their support.

He and others applied for grants and received funding from government agencies to come up with a proposal.

But in October, the project hit a wall of opposition from people who didn't want any changes in their beloved Patapsco River Valley.

Some said it would ruin the environment. Others said they didn't want more tourists in their neighborhoods.

Wagandt says he expected that. But he did not expect the personal attacks, the people who disregarded his work as a preservationist -- and who accused him, as owner of property he intends to turn into the Granite Hill Inn in Oella, of exploiting the valley for his personal gain.

"If I get some benefit out of it, it will only be because a rising tide lifts all boats," says Wagandt, who often is emotional in his defense of the greenway project.

Doyle has a far different style.

The 35-year-old prosecutor with the U.S. Justice Department shuns the spotlight; he refuses to be photographed or to comment at length about his work against the project.

But he is clearly a major force behind the opposition, filing Public Information Act requests about project funding, searching Wagandt's property records for possible conflict of interest, talking to politicians and speaking at public meetings.

"If he weren't around, there's a good chance we'd have very little problem," Wagandt acknowledges. "He has done an outstanding job. I don't know how he's doing his job, frankly, because I'll tell you, what he has achieved takes a lot of time. You don't do that in a few minutes on the weekend."

Doyle bought a historic 19th-century home adjacent to the park in St. Denis about 10 years ago and renovated it with his father. His wooded back yard attracts all manner of birds and other animals that call the park their home.

His proximity to the park has caused some detractors to accuse him of opposing the project because he and his wife, Beth Doyle, a Howard County public school teacher, want the park to themselves -- an accusation he denies.

"I bought my house when I was 25 because I love the park," he says. "We are one of many thousands who love the park. It's not just people in the area who oppose it. It's people statewide."

Although he opposes Wagandt's plan, Doyle is careful never to say anything negative about Wagandt himself.

"Our opposition is based on his plan for the Patapsco Valley State Park and the surrounding communities," he says. "There is no personal animosity whatsoever."

Wagandt cannot -- and does not -- say the same about Doyle.

"He has done an amazingly effective job at disseminating untruths and generating fear," Wagandt says. "He is very intelligent, very effective, and I don't appreciate his tactics."

Wagandt says that despite the strength of the opposition, his vision for the valley will not die.

"I still believe that something wonderful can happen in this valley," he says.

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