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Laurel Park inches ahead on park plans

Rhododendron Lake Park would include walking trails along stream and pond. Rhododendron Lake Park would include walking trails along stream and pond.

LAUREL PARK — Laurel Park town officials are moving ahead with plans for new walking trails and other improvements at Rhododendron Lake Park despite their concerns that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requirements are overly restrictive.

In order to win a $250,000 grant to relocate the stream that runs through the 9-acre site, the town agreed to set aside 3 acres in the middle as a conservation easement. That means the Corps of Engineers has the final word on what can be done along the stream.
At first, federal regulators seemed resistant to the town's plans.
"We came down somewhere in the middle" after a meeting, Mayor Carey O'Cain said. "Once we explained what we wanted to do they were open to it."
The question the town confronts is a basic one, landscape architect Hunter Marks told council members. "What is a park? If a park in your mind means a manicured space with a mowed area, no, don't do it," he said. "People aren't going to be happy with it."
The park would have walking trails and bridges over the stream, which feeds a small lake. The property is on Lake Drive just off Laurel Park Highway in lower Laurel Park.
"We have a 9 ½ acre park and a little more than three acres will go into a conservation easement," said George Banta, chair of a park advisory committee. "They'll give us a quarter million dollars to handle the relocation of this stream. For this money in perpetuity this land is not used. If that's compatible with a public park then it's a no brainer. Take the money and do it."
The town would be obligated to do more than leave the protected area alone.
"We're going to have to give them a quite detailed management scheme for that three acres," Banta said. "You have to grade out some of these areas and count the species that survive and graph and chart your mortality rate. It's quite a detailed involvement for that 'free money.'"
After a council meeting on Oct. 16, the council directed O'Cain and Councilman Paul Hansen to meet with Marks and water quality consultant Clement Riddle to tweak the plan for resubmittal and clarify "basically how the easement itself will be managed in the future and now much flexibility we'll have in maintaining the plantings," said Town Manager Jim Ball.
The conservation easement allowed the town to qualify for a program in which developers buy mitigation credits when development would disturb natural areas. The money then is used for restoration projects elsewhere.
"The easement comes along with getting the stream mitigation credits where the town's not paying for any of this," Ball said.
Even with the work paid for by the corps, Ball warned the council that the easement limits options for the park.
"It's still going to be a tract of land we're going to have a boatload of restrictions on and is the restriction worth the money?" he said. "Everybody's thinking open (land). Everybody's wanting to get to the stream."
Banta confirmed that the corps won't want recreation in the stream.
"The corps does not encourage kids taking their shoes off and wading in the stream and trying to catch salamanders and trying to catch fish," Banta said. "We're trying to get the corps to understand that this is a public park and we want the public to have access to these things. If I had to stand up in a public meeting and justify this, I think I would have trouble."
As for the corps' reaction to flexibility the town seeks, Marks said he is optimistic.
"We hope it's pretty good," he said. "We've had some preliminary talks with them."