The Maryland State Highway Administration is backing away from an aggressive highway improvement plan, which would have closed portions of Rocks State Park for several months in each of the next two summers while demolition crews blasted away portions of the historic boulders that give the park its name.
The Route 24 Slope Protection Project, as it has been named, is aimed at improving safe traveling conditions along the highway through Rocks by moving the roadbed as much as 20 feet away from the eroding banks of Deer Creek. In order to accomplish such a move SHA would have to at times send the road through solid rock.
Those plans changed Tuesday, when, after an intense two-week public outcry, SHA announced it was reevaluating its plans and would postpone the project by at least a season.
A letter distributed Tuesday by Kirk G. McClelland, Director of the Office of Highway Development for SHA, included the following statement:
“As a result of the feedback, SHA and its partner agencies are reevaluating the proposed alternatives and postponing the project until at least fall 2010.”
The Rocks project has riled residents and park visitors alike since it was first announced. Many (including this writer, who, in the interest of full disclosure, was and remains a founding member of Save The Rocks) have pointed out that SHA proposes nothing in the way of streambank stabilization and instead chose to detonate the culturally- and environmentally-significant Rocks.
With the help of more than 5,100 and counting supporters on its Facebook site, a grassroots campaign called Save The Rocks (of which this writer is an active member) kept the pressure on local legislators, SHA and the Department of Natural Resources, which has the final say in all goingson in the state park.
The SHA postponement comes just days after Save The Rocks began a campaign to mobilize supporters to attend the January 21 meeting of the Whiteford/Cardiff/Pylesville/Street Community Council, during which an SHA representative was expected to appear to present the agency’s plans for Rocks.
The community council moved its meeting to the auditorium of North Harford Middle School at 7 p.m. on January 21 in order to accomodate the anticipated crowd. It remains unclear whether SHA will still be sending a representative to the meeting now that the plans are being reevaluated and postponed.
Save The Rocks says its members and supporters will still attend the meeting and maintain pressure on SHA. Several elected officials, including Del. Donna Stifler and Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes have indicated they will still attend the meeting to discuss the issue with concerned constituents.
In an update on its website Tuesday evening, however, Save The Rocks indicated the 3-month postponement of the SHA plan is little cause for celebration:
“We heard from SHA today – they are working on a revised plan they say will respond to our concerns. We read their memo and thought about what it means. We know we want to be involved in the revision. If we are not involved, then we will be waiting until next Fall just to see if they give us the 10ft plan instead of the 20ft plan, when we won’t settle for anything but the 0ft plan. That is our stand. Are you with us?”
Deborah Bowers, a lifelong resident of the area and founding member of Save The Rocks, has a visceral reaction when she learned of SHA’s plans for the Rocks.
“I’ve never been so appalled by a plan before — it is almost inconceivable that the State Highway Administration would propose this kind work — that is, blasting rocks– at Rocks State Park. The road itself is a scenic attribute of the park. It has to stay that way. There are other ways to deal with the effects of the creek on the road,” she said Tuesday.
Bowers and the Save The Rocks committee will continue looking into streambank restoration techniques that would halt the erosion of Deer Creek and allow necessary road improvements to be made on Route 24 without blasting through the rock outcroppings.
Councilman Shrodes represents the northern area of the county, including Rocks, and spent much of Tuesday evening passing along word of the SHA postponement. Shrodes, who says he is passionate about Deer Creek and Harford’s other natural resources, was appalled by the SHA plans.
“I can’t help but to imagine what devastation SHA proposal would look like if it was actually constructed. It really just makes me sick that it was even considered,” he said.
The contract for the explosive work was set to be bid out by SHA within the next month or so and the northern end of the park (near St. Clair Bridge Road) was expected to be closed to traffic, hiking, fishing, tubing, swimming, etc from June through September of this year.
The second phase of the $9.25 million project would impact the southern portion of Route 24 (near Sharon Road) from June through September 2011). This southern phase would also endanger the home of a longtime Rocks Road resident, who would have to negotiate with SHA on the sale of his home – so it could subsequently be razed to allow for the road realignment.
This $9 million SHA project represents only two sections (A and G) of what is eventually anticipated to be a seven-section project to improve, widen, and straighten all of Route 24 through Rocks State Park.
Here is that SHA update:
MD 24 (Rocks Road) – Slope Protection Project
Project Update: January 12, 2010
In 2003, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) completed a study which examined the supporting slope of MD 24 near Deer Creek in Harford County. Seven distinct sections were identified with varying degrees of slope failure. The northern section, Section A, from the Deer Creek Bridge to 1200 feet south of that bridge, and the southern section, Section G, from 900 feet south of Sharon Road to 1700 feet north of Ferncliff Lane, have the most severe erosion and are most in need of repair. As a result, SHA began to work on a design for Sections A and G that would improve safety by remediating the failing slope along Deer Creek, as well as repair the pavement, improve roadway drainage, and address roadside safety concerns.
SHA held two public meetings in December 2009 and has since received several comments from the public regarding the proposed design. We at SHA recognize the importance in listening to feedback from our customers.
As a result of the feedback, SHA and its partner agencies are reevaluating the proposed alternatives and postponing the project until at least fall 2010. The reevaluation will look to revise the proposed roadway width, in order to minimize damage to the rock that borders the west side of MD 24. The reevaluation will also examine additional ways to stabilize the slope along Deer Creek. SHA will post project updates on its website, www.roads.maryland.gov,and will notify area residents of a follow-up public meeting to be held later this year.
SHA has worked closely with several environmental agencies during the design of this project, including: the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Through dialogue with the environmental agencies, various alternatives were evaluated to balance work to be performed in Deer Creek, as the creek is classified as a wild and scenic river. These alternatives currently include three proposed alignments: the existing alignment, an alignment that would shift the roadway centerline 10 feet away from the stream, and an alignment that would shift the roadway centerline 20 feet away from the stream.
During the December 8 and December 17, 2009 public meetings held at North Harford High School, SHA presented the three alignment alternatives, along with other roadway elements such as on-road bicycle compatibility, a catchment area for potential rock falls, and retaining walls for slope stabilization. SHA received several comments regarding these alternatives, such as:
– The proposed roadway width is greater than actually needed
– Additional alternatives to address the slope stabilization should be investigated
– The scenic view and natural features in the area should be preserved
– Concerns about rock blasting
– Concerns about sequencing of construction and maintenance of traffic during construction
Over the next several months, SHA will consider the public comments and present its new range ofalternates at a public meeting to be held later this year.
As always, safety along MD 24 remains SHA’s top priority. The additional time that SHA will invest to develop suitable alternatives will not affect safety, but will ensure that the concerns of both the public and the government agencies with a stake in this project be heard.