Baltimore County will use $6 million in local and state funds to begin the first phase of improvements to Robert E. Lee Park in the Woodbrook area.

The plan calls for restoring the 415-acre parcel into a regional facility to serve the county's central neighborhoods. The park will eventually include a nature center, dog park, hiking and biking trails, fountains, benches, restrooms and improved access to its most valuable asset, Lake Roland.

The park, owned by Baltimore City but located within the county, remains closed. Its access bridge, condemned as unsafe, was recently demolished.

"The city was overwhelmed with the problems at this park," said Robert J. Barrett, county recreation and parks director. "We are planning a huge investment in it so that it can serve people better than it has in the past."

The county will soon sign a long-term lease and become the park manager. Officials also expect to appoint a citizens advisory board to help chart the future of the park. More than 50 have volunteered, but Barrett said about a dozen members would be a more workable number.

"We intend to be good stewards of this site and to have residents as our partners in that stewardship," said Bud Chrismer, deputy director of recreation and parks.

Work on a new bridge, estimated to cost about $2.8 million, is to begin in March and take about six months. Construction of a fenced dog park and trails will start in late spring. The initial phase will also address problems with erosion, particularly along the shoreline of the 100-acre, man-made lake that was part of the municipal water supply until about 1915.

County officials organized a meeting that drew about 150 residents to Dumbarton Middle School last week. Participants viewed maps with details of the plan, heard a progress report from county engineers and gave their input on the restoration efforts.

"This is a wonderful platform for people to get involved in the future of this park," said Jeffrey Budnitz of Ruxton, who grew up in a home next to the park. "Right now, this park is destitute, but Baltimore County will make it the gem of its system."

Robert E. Lee would become the county's seventh regional park and the fifth with a nature center. The regional facilities typically exceed 100,000 visitors a year.

"This park had about 41,000 visitors a year and we expect that number to at least double," Barrett said.

Many at the meeting detailed specific areas of interest that a visit to the park fulfills. Carol Schreter, a member of the Baltimore Bird Club, said the park is home to 190 avian species and is one of the best migration spots on the East Coast. Dwight Johnson, a member of the Maryland Native Plants Society, asked that the serpentine area of the park be made off limits to dogs and bikes because of the fragility of several rare plants and the presence of century-old trees. Nancy Horst said she has long pushed for a rails-to-trails program that would allow bikers to bring their bikes to the park on the light rail.

Barrett hopes to draw on those varied interests as the project moves forward.

"We need your expertise and want to know what concerns you most," he said. "We intend to clean up this park, make it safe for you and bring activities that you want there."

He added that the park would have a maintenance staff and rangers, who will have the authority to enforce regulations, particularly in regard to dogs.

"In the past, people were reluctant to go to this park, because it was not well-managed and dogs essentially took over," Barrett said. "There will be a dog park with water access, where dogs can run free but owners will still have to attend to their dogs. In all other areas of the park, dogs must be leashed."

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