A place for the children to play soccer, an amphitheater for summer concerts, somewhere for seniors to dance and residents to get in shape. Stuff that any community would want, right?
Not in Howard County, where opposition to a proposed 160-acre Western Regional Park that would include those amenities is forcing officials to make concessions. Area residents and farmers say they'll fight to see that the park doesn't overwhelm their bucolic landscape or compete with recreational businesses.
"This park really sanctions the suburbanization of the west," said Randall Nixon, who owns Nixon's Farm in West Friendship.
The debate over the regional park, which would be the only one of its kind in the western half of the county, is an illustration of the increasing struggle that park officials throughout the region face in establishing recreational venues. Concerns about traffic, loitering, noise and even harm to the environment often are invoked by neighbors who want to keep park development at bay.
In Montgomery County, for instance, some South Germantown residents fought loudly against a planned soccer complex they said would overwhelm their community with minivans and car traffic and dirty ground water. Fairfax County residents objected to lights on ballfields at one Reston park and have fought another park in Centreville, where they're afraid a sports complex would spoil the rural atmosphere.
In Howard County this year, it's become commonplace for the parks and recreation department to change its plans because of public opposition.
Plans for the second phase of Sewells Orchard Park in Columbia's Owen Brown Village are being put on hold because the neighborhood outcry has been so loud. "We will work with the community to find out the final outcome," said Ken Alban, the department's budget administrator.
Lights and a covered pavilion were deleted from the plans for the Alpha Ridge Roller Hockey Rink on Old Frederick Road because of public protest over the people and noise they would draw. And that's why the ballfields at Meadowbrook Park, at Route 29 and Route 100, won't have any lights, either.
The fight over the proposed Western Regional Park comes as Howard struggles to maintain the rural nature of the west and accommodate rapid population growth. And it has set off a battle over whether the county should be competing with private businesses to offer hayrides, picnic pavilions, even golf courses.
"As a businessman, I'm not particularly pleased at having to compete with my county," said Fenby Moore, whose family runs Larriland Farms in Woodbine and uses hayrides and other activities to attract residents to buy pumpkins and cider in the fall.
Moore said the county does not need to provide residents with a taste of agriculture: "I am agriculture. If you want to introduce people to agriculture, let them come to my farm."
Recreation and Parks Director Gary J. Arthur said the department charges for the activities it provides because it's necessary. "The department has always been told that our programs . . . had to be self-sustaining," he said.
Arthur also said there is a need for large picnic pavilions and a drastic shortage of playing fields in the county. "It's my obligation to provide other opportunities," he said.
Moore was one of more than 40 residents who testified at a recent public hearing on the proposed Department of Recreation and Parks budget. Most of them spoke about the Western Regional Park, either opposing all or part of it, or pleading for fewer picnic pavilions and more ballfields.
Under the proposed budget, the county would start construction of the park, at Route 97 and Carrs Mill Road, in the coming fiscal year. It would build the roads and athletic fields first, at a cost of about $2.2 million, followed the next year by tennis courts, a roller-hockey facility and several pavilions. A library and a community center with dance and aerobics studios also are planned.
At the hearing, the recreation and parks advisory board approved the proposed budget--which the planning board and the County Council also must approve--but took out plans for a lake and a 2,000-seat amphitheater for the western park after several residents protested against them.
"They are not in keeping with the rural character," said area resident Howard Rensin, who also was worried about worsening traffic. "Road traffic on Route 97 is already horrendous."
As Howard County officials prepare next year's budget--a process that will take several months--many residents say parks and recreation services should be reevaluated.
"We have to begin by asking a fundamental question that so far this administration has not responded to, and that is: Where does government end?" said Nixon, whose family has run the farm and catering business off Route 32 for more than 50 years. Most of its business used to be in corporate picnics, but when Centennial Park opened in Ellicott City, it took 40 percent of revenue, Nixon said. Now, the farm has diversified, giving hayrides, hosting wine tastings and telling ghost stories in addition to providing space for wedding receptions and picnics. The new park would again cut into his business, he said.
"We will adapt if this monstrosity, what I call the Park That Ate Western Howard County, goes through," he said at the hearing. But he hopes he doesn't have to.
"I want to see what I grew up with preserved," he said in an interview later. "If government can't reach an accord with me on that, then there's no sense in my being here."
Nixon's representative on the County Council, Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County), agrees with him. "Perhaps we need to relook at some of what the Department of Recreation and Parks does," he said. "They shouldn't be competing with the private businesses."
Kittleman is against county plans for a second public golf course for the same reason. "I think this is an issue that maybe is bigger than just the Western Regional Park," he said.
CAPTION: Randall Nixon, of Nixon's Farm in western Howard, says the county's plans for building pavilions and offering hayrides will hurt his business.