ANNAPOLIS – When push came to shove, petal power proved stronger than pedal power.
Environmental concerns triumphed Monday before Montgomery County’s Senate delegation as opponents of an asphalt hiker-biker trail in Matthew Henson State Park persuaded lawmakers to alter a bill that limits construction.
The 5-1 amendment vote, with one abstention and one absence, is a speed bump for park planners who have lobbied since 1995 to put in a 5-mile path connecting the Sligo Creek Trail with the Rock Creek Trail.
And because senators amended a measure already passed by the House delegation, the bill now goes back to county delegates for a second vote – and a second battle between park planners and local environmentalists.
“People are visitors to this area, but it is home to the wildlife,” said R.G. Steinman, a spokeswoman for the anti-sprawl Sustainable Montgomery. “A paved trail through Henson Park and Greenway would fragment and destroy what is left of this green oasis.”
Matthew Henson State Park and Greenway, named for the black Maryland native who accompanied explorer Robert Edwin Peary to the North Pole, is a 5- mile stretch of undeveloped land connecting Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue.
The state purchased the land during the 1950s with plans to build an Outer Beltway. Those fell through when the wetland area was deemed unsuitable for development.
Transportation officials transferred the land to the Department of Natural Resources in May 1989. Five months later, it became a state park run by the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.
Park planners began their push for a bike path during the mid-1990s. Opponents, however, want the land to stay in its natural state.
Sen. Brian Frosh agreed, and Monday night, introduced an amendment requiring any new path to allow water through its surface. The amendment eliminates asphalt paving, something the park commission favored.
Officials say an asphalt trail would cost about $1 million per mile, which includes related costs – benches, signs and footbridges. A permeable trail ups the price tag, they said.
“We were hoping we’d get started on building this trail in the not-so- distant future,” said Bill Gries, a spokesman for the planning commission.
“There’s a good, honest difference of opinion here in terms of what’s appropriate. I don’t know where it’s finally going to shake out.”
While park officials were dismayed, the bill sponsor said he felt “blindsided” by the Senate delegation’s vote.
“I’m not sure they knew what they were doing, what they were voting on,” said Delegate Henry Heller. “I thought they understood the issue.”
Central to that issue is handicap accessibility. Trail proponents believe a paved surface will allow wheelchairs access to the park and conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Environmentalists say “too bad”: Mother Nature takes precedence.
“There are some things handicapped people can’t do and places they can’t go,” said Alyce Ortuzar, an environmental activist. “This is one of those areas.”
Delegation Chairwoman Ida Ruben took exception to the remark and abstained from the amendment vote, calling the arguments a “stretch” and “exaggeration.”
“I don’t like saying handicapped people can’t go here because `handicapped people can’t go everywhere,'” Ruben said. “I want people who are handicapped to enjoy the trees as well.”
Though five county senators supported the ban on asphalt, three of them said Tuesday that if the provision were removed, they would still support the measure. Frosh said he would not.
The House delegation meets Friday morning for consideration of the amended bill.