Environmentalists have lost their battle to prevent construction of a 1.2-mile paved trail along the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River in Patapsco Valley State Park.
Designs for the 8-foot-wide Grist Mill Trail Extension have begun, and the state legislature recently approved the final funding of $849,000, said Gene Piotrowski, director of resource planning for Maryland's state parks. The General Assembly had approved $685,000 in previous years.
Opponents of the trail had been trying to stop its funding for more than a year. They believe it will harm the environment, causing runoff to enter the Chesapeake Bay. They have also questioned the cost of the trail: an estimated $1.5 million.
In January last year, the Maryland Conservation Council, a statewide coalition of environmental groups, sent a letter to Gov. Parris N. Glendening asking him to halt funding for the trail.
Mildred F. Kriemelmeyer, council president, said she thinks the state Department of Natural Resources needs to rethink its priorities.
"They should be buying some more available properties upstream in the watershed to help protect downstream and keep development off the edge of the river," she said. "They shouldn't be destroying -- they should be protecting. This used to be DNR's mission, but lately they've been kowtowing to private commercial entities and that seems to be part of the program."
But Piotrowski defended the trail. He said DNR did a mandatory environmental review that showed it would not destroy wetlands, would not significantly alter the tree canopy and would not bring more noise and disturbance to the area, which is near an active railroad track.
"Yes, it's very close to the river but it's along a path where a 3-foot-long sewer line runs and is exposed," Piotrowski said.
He also defended the cost of the trail, which will run from the Bloede Dam and cross the Patapsco River at Ilchester.
"The majority of the cost is the pedestrian bridge crossing the Patapsco River," he said. Another expense is making the trail accessible to the disabled, he said, which is required by law. He said DNR also needs to do restoration work and erosion control.
Baltimore and Howard counties and the federal government were going to help pay for the trail, Piotrowski said. But both counties withdrew funding, in part because of opposition to the project.
Piotrowski said DNR decided not to seek federal funding partly because the federal government requires an environmental study that would have delayed the project another two years.
Kriemelmeyer and other environmentalists believe DNR didn't want to abide by the federal government's strict environmental regulations. They said the state is underplaying the environmental impact. "While there may not be any wetlands, the river does flood," Kriemelmeyer said. "And when you have a solid surface like asphalt, it's more likely to cause flooding. Whereas if you have a dirt path there with trees, it just flushes on through."