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Trail boosters express anger

Dundalk Eagle on November 11, 2011
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If someone filmed this month’s St. Helena community meeting, they may have called it Baltimore County and Heritage Trail of Woe. 

Last Thursday night, about 60 people — including members of the St. Helena Community Association and the St. Helena Neighborhood Association — crammed into the neighborhood’s community center to hear what the county had to say about the seemingly aborted Heritage Trail and the $3 million that was allotted by then-Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith. 

The project was a 2001  Urban Design Assistance Team (UDAT)  proposal to connect the city to the county via Dundalk Avenue and Broening Highway by creating a scenic, history-focused bike and walking trail. 

“I’m not sure where the money went,” Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. (7th District) told the group. “But I’m going to look into it.” 

In October, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced that the county would be setting aside $3 million for the completion of Robert E. Lee Park.

But since the St. Helena meeting, The Eagle has learned that the Heritage Trail was abandoned by Kamenetz as far back as August. 

“During our meeting in August, [Kamenetz] told us that the Heritage Trail was postponed indefinitely,” said Del. Joseph “Sonny” Minnick (6th District) about a yearly meeting between state officials and the county executive. “[Del. John Olszewski Jr. (6th District)] protested that it wasn’t fair to the area and that the folks there were promised a trail. [Kamenetz] said something to the effect of not having to cut things from the budget.”

But to Shirley Gregory, president of the  St. Helena Community Association (representing the Baltimore City side of the community), that’s a poor excuse. 

“The money was set aside by [Smith],” she said. “The money was already there. There’s nothing to cut. They just want to use our money for more attractive projects in places like Robert E. Lee Park in Towson. We always get the short end of the stick down here.”  

On October 14, Kamenetz opened Robert E. Lee Park at Lake Avenue and Falls Road, two years after the County acquired the 415-acre park from Baltimore City.

The county funded the former city park using  $3 million from the state and adding $3.1 million from county coffers, according to information provided by the county.  

“At our meeting, [Sen. Norman] Stone wanted to know why the county never went to the state about our project,” Gregory said. “He didn’t get a response. We’ve been stonewalled by Kamenetz’s office from the beginning.” 

Gregory reportedly invited the county executive to last week’s meeting back in October. 

In an e-mail dated Oct. 24, his office responded with a curt reply. 

“The County Executive is very busy at this time,” wrote executive assistant Susan Ehman. “Maybe, after the first of the year, he could meet. Bryan Sheppard will be happy to attend and represent the County Executive at your meetings, when he doesn’t have a conflict.  Thank you for the invitation.” 

Sheppard, a community liaison from  Kamenetz’s office, did attend the meeting and said, “We have agreed to revisit the project at a later date. There is just no funding for it at this time.” 

As of Tuesday, about $3,777,231 had been spent on Robert E. Lee Park with  the remaining funds intended to be used on future renovations and upkeep.

The county also spent $1.1 million on a concrete slab bridge which spans 115 feet over Roland Run and a collection of improvements and additions to the park itself, including a 2,000-foot long paved foot path, a 1,400-foot-long boardwalk which runs from the light rail station to the site of a future ranger station, and the Baltimore Animal Rights Coalition (BARC), Park, a 1.5-acre chained compound for walking dogs, according to the county’s information. 

“Isn’t that something,” Gregory said afterward. “Our trail was supposed to cost the county $3 million.  They do not care about the people of Dundalk and St. Helena.” 

The county opted out of buying a 3.5-acre lot owned by James  Robinson  that would have completed the trail, but due to the county’s decision, the owners have renewed a five-year lease and aren’t going anywhere.  

Del. Olszewski, a St. Helena resident, was outraged at the decision to kill the Heritage Trail in favor of Robert E. Lee park. 

“The county should have at least bought the [Robinson] property,” he said on Tuesday. “That’s all they needed to do to clean up the truck traffic in the area down there. I think this sends the wrong message to the community that one area of the county is favored over another. In this case it’s comparing apples to apples.” 

A few who attended the meeting believed that the executive was playing politics with local projects. 

During the 2010 election, Stone and Minnick backed Baltimore County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder (6th District) for county executive in the Democratic primary against Kamenetz. 

It was asked at the meeting whether or not this allegiance played a part in nixing the trail project under the new administration. 

“I don’t think politics had anything to do with it,” said Councilman Olszewski. “It’s just that there needed to be cuts and this project was put on hold.” 

The councilman was one of Kamenetz’s earliest and most vocal supporters in last year’s race.

But, according to Minnick, politics could have been the root cause, as he’s allegedly seen this kind of tactic in action. 

“Take the alcohol tax,” Minnick said about the controversial state tax that was going to raise $7 million for Baltimore County schools. “We all voted against it and as a result, this area didn’t see one dime for our schools.

“It all went to Pikesville, Owings Mills and those parts of the county. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Heritage Trail was political.” 

Gregory was adamant that she and her community are not giving up the fight. 

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “We’re going to see this through. Our community was promised this by the county and we’re going to get our trail.”  

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