Howard County officials' decision not to provide additional funding to the Patapsco Heritage Greenway in the near future further cripples a project that has met with severe opposition from the day the general public found out about it a year and a half ago.
The county will not renew a contract that would have given the group an additional $15,000, said Sang Oh, an aide to County Executive James N. Robey. In addition, Oh said, the group will have to repay the county $752.52 in expenses.
Depending on whom you ask, the county's move is either a major blow or a minor setback to the group that wants to make a certified heritage area out of the Patapsco Valley State Park and surrounding towns. The area, linked by trails, would have interpretive signs and brochures explaining the history of the valley, which flourished at the turn of the century. Opponents fear it would attract too many tourists, crowding the park and the riverside towns of Elkridge, Ellicott City, Oella, St. Denis and Relay.
Lee Walker Oxenham, an Ellicott City resident who opposes Patapsco Heritage Greenway, said the county's decision, which was made late last week, proves "mishandling of monies." Several months ago, she accused greenway planners of misuse of funds and demanded that Howard County investigate.
Oh said there is no evidence of wrongdoing but the county executive does not want to continue to support a project that has inspired so much controversy in the community.
"We're convinced that there were no improprieties," Oh said. But, he added, "There has to be a great consensus of the community to support this. ... There's not that community support."
Much of the problem, Oh said, is "the inability of one party to communicate to the other party exactly what they intend to do."
In October 1998, planners of Patapsco Heritage Greenway unveiled some proposals at a public meeting in Oella, just across the river from historic Ellicott City. Their proposals - everything from concessions along the river to parking garages in Ellicott City - terrified residents who worried about the crowded Patapsco Valley State Park and surrounding towns.
Since then, greenway planners have struggled with opposition. The towns of Relay, St. Denis and Oella voted against being part of the project. A state coalition of environmentalists came out in opposition.
But supporters - many of them prominent individuals in Howard and Baltimore counties - pressed on.
John Slater, a Columbia landscape architect and spokesman for greenway supporters, would not comment on the county's decision.
Kit Valentine, president of the group seeking to create a greenway, could not be reached for comment.
Some greenway supporters think the county's decision is a slap in the face. Last month, Ed Lilley, president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, wrote a letter to the county urging it to "honor its commitment" to Patapsco Heritage Greenway.
"A negative decision will in my opinion give the perception of the County having turned its back on those who have striven so hard and accomplished so much," he wrote, describing those who support the greenway as "a compilation of outstanding people who have worked for over 30 years to preserve and protect the area and help make Ellicott City and Howard County a better place."
"It would also not encourage a great deal of trust in future endeavors involving the county," he wrote.
The greenway group has other sources of funding. It has received a grant commitment for $80,000 from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, said William J. Pencek Jr., deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust and the primary administrator of the Maryland Heritage Areas program, but has received only half of that so far.
In addition, the group recently received $40,000 from Celebration Maryland, a state group, for activities that include story circles and exhibits. A little more than a year ago, it received $1,500 from Preservation Maryland to produce a trail brochure of the Avalon and Orange Grove areas of the Patapsco Valley State Park.
Also, the greenway group at one time publicly supported a 1.2-mile-long, 8-foot-wide paved trail along the Patapsco River, which recently received funding from the state. The estimated cost of the trail is $1.5 million.
Oxenham said state funding to the group still merits scrutiny."I'm delighted that the Howard County government has seen fit to terminate its relationship with the Patapsco Heritage Greenway Committee," she said. "However, there are larger issues that still need to be addressed in terms of public accountability and improper use of taxpayer money at the state level."