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Activists get early start on road fight

Staff members in Baltimore County's public works department were surprised this summer when they started getting complaints about the extension of Dolfield Boulevard in Owings Mills. After all, the county is no closer to putting shovels into dirt for the four-lane road than it was when the project was proposed decades ago.

But preliminary plans put a segment of the road a few hundred yards north of the townhouse where Noel Levy lives. That's the same Noel Levy who three years ago helped lead the successful fight against the condemnation-for-redevelopment plan known as Senate Bill 509.

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When Levy heard that money for Dolfield Boulevard was in this year's capital budget, and that construction would involve knocking down an unspecified number of homes, he was more than happy to return to the warpath.

Now Levy and neighbors who have known about the road for decades are using every tool they can muster, from historic landmark preservation legislation to appeals to the Native American Defense Fund to stop the bulldozers that aren't slated to arrive for years.

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"I don't even have to go to Randallstown or Essex-Middle River to fight condemnation," Levy said, referring to the battle against SB 509. "Now I can do it right here in my own back yard."

The county plans to extend Dolfield Boulevard in two phases. In Phase I, a road would be built from Reisterstown Road near the Owings Mills Target store through Belltown to Interstate 795. The second phase would connect the I-795 overpass with the existing Dolfield Boulevard in the Newtown section of Owings Mills. The county is also pressing the state for a new interchange to provide limited access to and from the interstate.

Although it is labeled on county charts as Phase II, the part of the road west of the interstate is being built first. Large-scale residential development is under way there, and builders are constructing segments of the road as they go along. The county will connect them when they're done.

Public Works Director Edward C. Adams Jr. said the county is planning for the eastern section by trying to figuring out how much it will cost and how much money will have to be devoted to each phase. But there is no timetable for construction of Phase I.

"It's no [closer], really, than it was years ago," he said.

County officials say the money Levy saw for the project in the fiscal 2004 budget was to finish sections of Phase II, not to begin work on the section that runs through Belltown, a historic African-American community. This year's capital budget adds $1.01 million to the $5.8 million that had previously been allocated to the project.

Simmering anxiety

When Levy started telling people who live along the road's possible path about the funding, it brought to the surface a simmering anxiety among the residents, many of whom have lived in the area since it was a country village and now find themselves in the thick of suburbia.

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"When I was a child here, you could play in the middle of the road," said Dorothy Featherston, who has lived on Church Road, near the proposed path of the road, for 56 of her 57 years. "Now it's nothing but houses. I guess nothing lasts forever, like they say, but [the road] will wreck the entire area. Let us have our little country road out here. We don't want a highway."

The fact that the county doesn't have specific plans about when the road will be built, where it will go or whose houses will have to be taken has only led to suspicion and worry among residents, a few of whom said they see some sort of conspiracy between county officials and developers.

When opponents of the road came to the County Council meeting earlier this month, Martin Stein demanded so loudly that the minutes from the previous meeting be read, lest anything be slipped past them, that the council chairman called for security guards to calm him down.

Adams said the county needs a high-capacity east-west connector in the area. The county has channeled residential development into Owings Mills in an effort to spare rural areas, he explained, and that has created a need for more roads to help residents get in and out of the new neighborhoods.

"The idea of getting an additional east-west arterial collector is needed at this time - people know the roadways, and they're starting to cut through" on residential streets, he said.

Keith Hollenbaugh, who lives with his wife in a house her father built nearly 50 years ago on Featherbed Lane, near where Dolfield Boulevard would run, said the road would bring trash, pollution and traffic and would take out trees and houses that have stood for decades.

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"Traffic is not really that bad through here," he said.

Some neighbors think the county has its mind set on the road and will not be stopped. Others have vowed to fight. Led by Levy, they are looking into securing historical designation for some of the homes near the road, including one where Revolutionary War hero John Bell lived.

They're checking whether construction would have a negative effect on the Gwynns Falls watershed. Stein said he plans to write to the Native American Defense Fund to see if it would have an interest in the project because the neighborhood is at the highest elevation in Baltimore County and thus, probably had special significance for Native American tribes there.

And then there's County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who grew up in the neighborhood. Residents are hoping they can enlist him as an ally.

"I played softball at his house. We went swimming together. He taught me how to dive, and he taught me how to smoke," Featherston said.

'Important project'

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Smith said through a spokesman that he remembered the swimming - if not the smoking - but, regardless, is in favor of the road and hopes the state will move forward with a new interchange for I-795 to help alleviate traffic congestion.

"It's an important project for the whole area," said Smith spokeswoman Ellen Kobler.

The executive has been through the condemnation process once before, and that could influence his views on this project, one resident said.

Smith's parents' home was demolished years ago to make way for I-795, said Catherine Spencer, 86, whose home of 49 years is almost certainly in the path of the road.

"He probably thinks, since they took his parents' house, why are we arguing when he takes ours?" Spencer said.


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