Burton on the Bay:

Handicapping the Races

No Matter Who's Running,

Somebody's Against 'Em

Listen up. The Whitbread isn't the only race they're talking about hereabouts these days. How about dry-land NASCAR competition?

In sailboat racing, things are usually gentlemanly - though there were those whose complaints about the round-the-world ragmop competition bordered on ungentlemanly in such respects as traffic congestion, boozing, noise and competition with an Annapolis boat show of long standing.

But that's only a whimper when compared with the controversy surrounding the proposal of Middle River Racing Association to build a $100 million auto racing track on the shores of the Patapsco River.

When the Whitbread fleet sails down the Bay, it will pass the site where MRRA wants to build the track. They'll pass at a pace that's only a fraction of what the racing cars will travel, whipping around the oval track a couple miles up Fort Smallwood Road from the Burton homestead on Stoney Creek.

Had the ongoing fight to save the trees on the cliff overlooking the creek been lost, I'd be able to watch the Whitbread fleet as it heads for its start at the Bay Bridge. As it is, I can walk a hundred yards north and see the boats, courtesy of a few neighbors who, against community laws, took an ax to the trees, thus making the steep slope vulnerable to washouts and runoff.


Whitbread No Big Deal

I might do just that, though the sight of the scarred slope will detract from the sight of the fleet passing by. I won't hear the wind-propelled 60-foot Whitbread craft, but I will surely hear all the commotion of the spectator boats as they pass.

Probably it will be as noisy as when the luxury liner QE2 passed by more than a decade ago accompanied by an armada of pleasure craft carrying sightseers. The noise won't last long, maybe an hour or so. Then Whitbread will be history at the mouth of Stoney Creek.

Surely, on the water there will be heavy traffic, also inconveniences as the Coast Guard, assisted by Natural Resources Police, try to keep the course clear. Good thing fishing for rock in the spring trophy season is banned in the Patapsco and other tributaries.

But farther down the Bay, things will be different.

To clear the way for the start of the long leg from the Bay Bridge to France, the Coast Guard has set up a so-called Exclusion Zone Sunday from basically Sandy Point Light to Thomas Point Light. It's seven miles long and one mile wide.

From 10am to 2:30pm, maybe longer if there's a hitch in the start, no boats other than the racing craft can enter that zone. An angler trolling at the mouth of the Severn, who hears the fish have started biting on the other side of the channel below Matapeake, won't be able to dash as the gull flies to rockfish galore.

He'll have to chug north above Sandy Point Light, then cross the Bay and head south, by which time the bite might have passed. If he decides to take the shortcut and follow the gulls, it can be expensive. The Coast Guard tells me a violation can cost $25,000, which is more than the price of most fishing boats.

Whitbread rules.


NASCAR's a Civil War

But for the NASCAR race plan, the deal is bigger - and much of it involves noise.

Also, much of the NASCAR controversy involves traffic. You know, like all the boats of the spectator fleet tacking here 'n' there to follow Chessie and other competing craft to the starting line. Then the race itself.

But with the privately paid for 54,800-seat NASCAR stadium, the noise will be from souped up Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Fords and such; the spectator traffic will be on Fort Smallwood Road, other feeder roads and the exit and entrance ramps of I-695 this side of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Hey, this race track proposal is creating a civil war, neighbor against neighbor. On the one side are those who fear commotion, traffic and 54,800 non-residents flooding the shores of the Patapsco. Against them are those who see jobs, business and revitalization in the building of a mammoth center capable of hosting other events, including rock or concert bands in addition to the whining of souped up cars driven by Mark Martin, Dale Ernhardt, Jeff Burton (no relative) and the likes.

Naturally, controversy brews an invitation for politicians, and they turned out at public meetings before last week, when the County Council by five to two gave approval for a zoning change that paves the way for further planning, possibly construction, of the track.

In neighborhoods, the track idea isn't so popular, though it has many supporters. But the pols like to feed on fear and discontent. At one of the meetings I attended, Councilwoman Diane Evans and her crew - adorned in bright red, white and blue political tags - were pushing people aside to gather names for a petition, playing on the apprehension of those she hopes will be among her supporters when she tries to unseat County Executive John Gary.

Her crew was as disruptive as the most vocal opponents or supporters at Riviera Beach Fire Hall, but she needs recognition now that she has switched from Republican to Democrat, which certainly is no loss for the GOP. She who holds her own personal ambitions above party is a curious politician who thinks if you can't win within the party - and you don't want to wait your turn - cross over the bridge.

There was John Leopold, the GOP delegate, who made his usual appearance to glad-hand the opponents, then vanished once the meeting started - as he so often does when votes are taken in the House of Delegates. Surely the Republicans wouldn't mind if he switched, too.

Sen. Phil Jimeno sent someone to represent him; he probably didn't want to attend seeing that someone might remind him that the exhaust from the racing cars and spectators who drive to the track don't cause as much air and Bay pollution as do cars that would have escaped treadmill tests had he had his way on emissions legislation.

He's the guy who couldn't attend opening ceremonies at the new jailhouse on Ordnance Road because his constituents didn't want the center thereabouts. They want jail time for offenders - but not anywhere near them, which the new facility really isn't. Now, he might have a track to boycott.

Don't consider all of this an endorsement of the track. I'm still undecided. But the thought of cleaning up the old copper refinery at Kembo Road, Pasadena is intriguing. What do we want? More heavy industry to move in?

As for noise, how much will reverberate over the countryside and Patapsco from inside a giant bowl? As for pollution, traffic and such, there are state and county departments to ensure reasonable development. Within that process is the way to gripe - and I may be among the protesters if there are environmental conflicts. But modifying zoning as a beginning to really get to the nuts and bolts of the issue seemed only reasonable.

From now on we'll be watching closely. Enough said ...

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Volume VI Number 17
April 30 - May 6, 1998
New Bay Times

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