In its role as equal-opportunity protector of the state’s environment, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has found itself caught between a creek and a hard place – or a lot of rock and an environmentally-sensitive wet place, if you prefer – dealing with a road improvement project in Jarrettsville.
The State Highway Administration is proposing a $9.2 million project to shift, widen, and straighten Route 24 through Rocks State Park, but it may ultimately be up to DNR to decide whether the construction will disturb the protected waters of Deer Creek or blast even deeper into the famous rock that gives the park its name.
During a public information session organized and hosted by SHA officials Tuesday night, DNR representative Arnold “Butch” Norden acknowledged his agency had not yet recommended with which plan SHA should proceed – the one that disturbs the creek or the one that blasts away the rock.
Norden, chief of resource management with the Maryland Park Service, said DNR hasn’t given support one way or another and is still weighing which deserves more protection Deer Creek or the rocks at Rocks, but “would not be a roadblock” to the project.
The project is needed, according to SHA, because Deer Creek is scouring away at its banks and creeping dangerously close to Route 24 as it winds through Rocks State Park. In some places, this erosion has caused utility poles and traffic barriers to lean. In other areas, it has led to cracked pavement and pooling water. Eventually, SHA contends, without stabilization of Deer Creek’s bank or a shift of the road away from the encroaching waterway (and through the solid rock on the other side), the safety of motorists traveling along that section of Route 24 (currently at a pace of 5,850 vehicles per day) could be jeopardized.
So SHA has proposed three options to remedy the problem:
– Hold the existing centerline of the road.
– Shift the road 10 feet from Deer Creek.
– Shift the road 20 feet from Deer Creek – with the additional options of adding a retaining wall along the west side of the stream.
The “do-nothing” option would require major stream bank stabilization work to be conducted within Deer Creek, doesn’t separate vehicle traffic from bicycles on Route 24, allows for only a two-foot shoulder on each side of the road, and is generally deemed not desirable by park staff or environmental agencies because of the amount of disturbance that will have to be done to the creek. This option disturbs the creek heavily, but involves no blasting or cutting of rock.
The “10-foot-shift” option would still require work in the creek and on the slopes, allows for an increase in the shoulder size, but disturbs 0.4 acres of forest when crews cut 10 feet through the rock outcrops opposite the creek. This option disturbs the creek and rock about equally.
The “20-foot-shift” option eliminates the need for stream bank stabilization whatsoever, separates vehicular and bike traffic, widens the shoulders to five feet, and creates a 20-foot grassy area between Deer Creek and Route 24, which project planners expect will be used recreationally by fishermen and park visitors. However, this plan disturbs 0.7 to 0.84 acres of forest and requires significant blasting to cut 20 feet into the rock in some places. This option does little to disturb the creek directly, but involves the most intensive blasting and cutting into the rock.
On the southern end of the project, where traffic first enters Rocks State Park on Route 24, the third option is split off into two separate sub-options – a 20-foot shift with a retaining wall and a 20-foot shift without a retaining wall.
Both of the 20-foot-shift options trade minimal disturbance of Deer Creek for an increased rock blasting operation. In one version of the plan, a large and unpleasant-looking retaining wall would cut abruptly through the rocky terrain to allow the road to be shifted away from the creek.
In the other version of the plan, a gradual, sloping hillside would be implemented to allow the road to be shifted without need for the retaining wall. However, this version also contains one other deviation – it calls for the removal of a house on the hill.
Ten or so attendees wandered around the cafeteria of North Harford High Tuesday evening, including a few members of the Whiteford/Cardiff/Pylesville/Street Community Council, who are concerned that closing Route 24 for several months in each of the next two years could force additional traffic onto the already dangerous and excessively-travelled Route 543. Also in attendance was the owner of the lone residence jeopardized by the project.
One option proposed by SHA would bring Route 24 about 20 feet closer to the home he’s owned for 27 years.
Another option would bring an SHA real estate appraiser to his front door making him an offer for his home.
An SHA representative explained the situation to the home owner and listened patiently as the man told a potentially-tragic tale of how he planned on selling his home and property in about 20 years to provide him with the financial means for retirement.
While courteous and understanding, the SHA representative was clear the state would pay only the current market value for the house and land, not the estimated value it might have a few decades from now.
Even as he was left to ponder the fate of his home and carefully constructed retirement plan, the jeopardized homeowner admitted the conditions were such that “something had to be done” about keeping Deer Creek away from Route 24.
DNR and SHA hope to have decided on with which option to proceed with the northern portion of the project by spring 2010 and anticipate construction to begin in summer 2010. The southern portion of the project would begin in summer 2011. Each construction period will last several months, during which Route 24 will be closed to through traffic and access to the park and creek will be restricted.
A second, identical public meeting on the Route 24 slope protection project is scheduled for Thursday, December 17 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at North Harford High School.