Residents oppose plans for Loch Raven Dam; They fear damage from repair project


There is a dam problem in the rolling hills of Baltimore County's Cromwell Valley.

The aging, 80-foot-high Loch Raven Dam is in need of repair. But to fix it, acres of farmland would be destroyed, serene woodlands disturbed and miles of horseback and bike trails ruined.

The city of Baltimore, which owns Loch Raven Dam and is responsible for its maintenance, says there's no way around it and that the $30 million project must proceed. But as an act of good faith, the city says, it promises to minimize the damage.

"We're all for fixing the dam," says Sallyellen Hurst, 36, who lives on Hoover Lane and is the fourth generation of Hoovers to live near the dam since the early 1900s. "We just don't understand why the city has to destroy this land and our way of living to do it.

"We're not going to let them shove this down our throat."

About 150 residents, who found out about the project last month, attended a public hearing sponsored by the city last night at Loch Raven High School. Some of the county's state legislators and County Council members were in attendance to help the residents in the effort.

State Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell urged the Maryland Department of the Environment to wait until residents have their say before deciding whether to grant a permit to begin the project.

"Before we start issuing anything, there's got to be more input from the neighbors," said Bromwell to applause."

Under pressure from residents and elected officials last night, Baltimore public works director George Winfield said he would create a task force to study the issue further. Winfield promised a solution to the problem within a month.

Residents say the dispute is not about opposing all projects in their back yard. If anything, Cromwell Valley residents want the dam construction.

They know that the dam -- the larger of two dams on the Gunpowder Falls that create Loch Raven Reservoir -- is 88 years old and must meet federal safety guidelines.

They don't want the dam to fail and flood out their homes and businesses.

They just don't agree with the way the city proposes to repair it.

City public works officials want to build a road along the eastern side of Gunpowder Falls to start the three-year construction project, set to begin next year. The road would wind along the edge of 67 acres of farmland and cut through the woods along part of Hoover Lane, a dirt path used by bikers and horses, toward the bigger dam.

The city also would build a concrete storage facility near the waterline on 16 acres of the farmland and fence off wooded areas near the dam construction site.

"It's going to wreak havoc on this area," says Elaine Smith, 41, who owns a horse farm near the proposed storage facility site.

City officials say there are no alternatives. They say they cannot move the project to the other side of the dam because the intersection of Loch Raven Drive and Cromwell Bridge Road is too dangerous for truck traffic.

An old quarry site near Loch Raven Drive is too far from the dam to use as a storage facility because moving equipment up and down the steep road would be unsafe; there isn't enough room by the dam on the west side for a construction site, at least not without ripping down 60-year-old trees; and an old steel conduit beneath Loch Raven Drive might not withstand a lot of heavy truck traffic, says Jeffrey M. Stamm, project manager.

"If I lived there, I'd be opposed to it, too," Stamm says. "I know they're not happy, but the city is trying to be responsive to their concerns. I wish we could do this on the other side of the dam, but our studies have shown us that we can't."

The city moved the proposed storage site and road about 500 feet away from homes, closer to the water. But the city owns Hoover Lane along with the reservoir. With the supply of water to 1.8 million people in the Baltimore metropolitan area at stake, the city says, it will do what it has to do.

State officials say the city has no choice, that the dam must be made heavier and bigger.

"It does need to be done," says Brad Iarossi, chief of the dam safety division of the state Department of the Environment. "The dam is not unsafe under normal conditions, but in extreme storms, it could challenge it. The failure of the dam would be so devastating. This is a major undertaking by the city.

The city has chosen the best site for the project, he said.

Hurst, who lives in a log cabin with her husband, Hugh, 54, says, "I was given this land as part of my family legacy. I sunk everything into this place." She and her husband own a farm where they also breed thoroughbreds.

Her great-grandparents, Grace and Troy Hoover, moved to the valley in 1918. For years, they farmed on 500 acres they owned. During the Depression, the family lost more than half of the land. It lost more in a family dispute that ended with several half-million-dollar houses built around them.

In 1973, the state condemned 67 acres as flood plain for Gunpowder Falls State Park. After paying Elizabeth Littleton, Hurst's grandmother, about $3,000 an acre, the state leased the land out for farming.

Between Hurst and Littleton, the family now owns 17 acres.

"We tried to fight it when the state took our land, but you know that old saying, 'You can't fight City Hall,' " says Littleton, 78, who was born and raised near the dam, which was built in 1912 to control the reservoir.

"I'm a little upset, to say the least," Littleton says of the dam project.

Stanley Burton is just as worried.

Most mornings during growing season for 22 years, he has climbed aboard a tractor to till land off Hoover Lane, the last parcel in the valley used for farming. Burton owns an 80-acre farm, 35 acres of which is farmed, in Glen Arm and supplements his income with produce he grows by Loch Raven Dam.

With dam construction set to start next year, Burton figures this might be the last year he'll get sweet corn, cabbage and tomatoes to sprout from this soil.

Smith stands to lose customers who are considering moving their horses out of her stables. No one wants to board horses at a farm without riding trails nearby.

"I'm going to have a business with no people to provide to," Smith says.

Stamm acknowledges that their concerns have merit.

"Portions of that area are not going to be safe for people mountain biking or horseback riding," Stamm says. "Portions of it will be closed during the day and fenced off to people."

But he says he sees no way around it.

County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder and several state delegates who represent the area say they will get to the bottom of the dam dispute.

"The city has every right to do this. It's their land," says Bartenfelder, who is chairman of the council and a farmer. "But at this point, I'm unconvinced that the project couldn't be moved elsewhere. As it stands, it has traffic problems, environmental problems and people problems.

"These people are not being irrational. Their concerns are justified. I'm just hoping something can be worked out."

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