A new study states that the habitat of the endangered bog turtle would not be damaged by construction of a badly needed Route 30 bypass around Hampstead, offering commuters hope for an end to long waits at the Carroll County town's stoplights, and perhaps allaying concerns about the survival of a creature few people had heard of three years ago.
"Construction of the Hampstead Bypass will ... have a negligible impact on the bog turtle wetlands," said the study commissioned by the State Highway Administration. The discovery in 1998 of a few of the 1-pound turtles prompted extensive environmental study and stalled plans for the $35 million Hampstead bypass.
The nearly completed state studies indicate that "the bypass is OK as long as we take all the precautions," Jeanne M. Joiner, chief of Carroll's planning bureau, told county commissioners yesterday. "We also have to have a really clear understanding of what is required."
Before the nearly 25,000 commuters who clog Route 30 through Hampstead daily sigh with relief, they should know that even under optimum conditions, construction cannot begin for about three years.
"The state will forward several biological assessments to federal agencies," Joiner said. "All of this has to be approved before funds are allocated or permits released."
It will be October before all studies are completed and forwarded to the several federal agencies that must approve and fund the project: a bypass roughly parallel to Route 30 from near Wolf Hill Drive to Brodbeck Road. The new road would divert most of Hampstead's Main Street traffic, much of it trucks and tractor-trailers.
"We never thought the turtle would stop the bypass," said Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin. "This was always about making sure there were habitat protections."
Before the road is built, Carroll will have to show its commitment to protecting wetlands and providing plans to safeguard bog turtles, creatures that spend most of their lives buried in mud. Monitoring the habitats could continue for several years, planners said.
"Our No. 1 priority remains the Hampstead bypass," said Steven C. Horn, county director of planning. "We can minimize the impact on the turtle by developing extraordinary steps to protect ground water. We are hoping this project will be a national prototype for protecting threatened species."
Discussed since the 1960s
Hampstead, a town of 4,500, has learned patience.
"I used to tell anybody who would listen that it would be 30 years before we had this bypass," said Nevin, mayor since 1995. "Now it has become more of a finite plan that has a definite possibility of happening in our lifetime. Everybody who travels that corridor is looking forward to this, especially those who live and do business on Main Street."
Discussions of a bypass around Hampstead began in the 1960s, but frequently broke off because of lack of money or problems with land acquisition.
"Hampstead has been waiting 25 years for a bypass that has been studied to death," Joiner said. "Most everybody in town knows where it will go."
Route realigned in 1994
The route was realigned in 1994, when the first bog turtle was found. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the reptile a threatened species and prompted the state highway agency to commission a study to determine how many turtles would be affected by the bypass.
A six-week survey in 1998 found 17 bog turtles and identified eight potential habitats. Land purchases for the bypass were stopped until planners determined where the road would go.
"The state study is looking at exact boundaries and a mitigation plan to make sure protections occur," Joiner said.
As gridlock continues in Hampstead, Commissioner Donald I. Dell wonders whether Carroll will end up building a bog turtle park.
"This is an effort to provide a habitat even beyond what nature provides," Dell said. "There is all this fuss about protecting a turtle when we have humans killed on crowded roadways. Are we going to make humans extinct so we can save turtles?"