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Revisiting Robinwood bypass: Why it's likely to go ahead now

March 24, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

So why, six years after the Washington County Commissioners promised they would abandon a plan for a bypass of Robinwood Drive, has the project been revived?

The short answer: Because traffic is getting worse and perhaps more important from a political standpoint, a key opponent of the 1998 proposal is no longer fighting the idea.

But why has a stretch of roadway less than three miles long and which would affect fewer than a dozen homes provoked so much furor?

To answer that, some background is required.

Ever since the passage of Washington County's first zoning ordinance 30 years ago, the Robinwood area to the east of Hagerstown has been designated as a "new community" area.

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As described by county officials back in the 1970s, Robinwood would become a mini-Columbia, a place where townhouses, multi-family apartment buildings and other development would be welcome.

There was only one problem - Robinwood Drive, the main road through the area. On the Hagerstown end, there was room to widen it, but on the Smithsburg end, near its junction with Md. 64, it was (and remains) a two-lane road, with houses clustered close along both sides of it.

Widening it would require taking half the front yards on both sides of the road, or buying lots of houses, neither of which county officials have ever found the courage to do.

Six years ago, as the area faced increasing traffic entering Robinwood Drive from the Md. 64 end, the county commissioners felt they had a solution. They would bypass one end of Robinwood Drive by creating a new roadway with an entrance farther east on Md. 64.

The road would run behind a number of homes, taking backyards in the process and land from the Covenant Presbyterian Church. A furious anti-bypass effort was mounted and the commissioners, facing re-election, backed down.

Instead they decided in May 1988 that they would take the bypass all the way down to White Hall Road near Smithsburg.

A month later, that option had changed to widening Robinwood Drive and considering the idea of having the county build driveway turnarounds so residents would not have to back into traffic.

Commissioners' President Greg Snook sent the Concerned Citizens of the Robinwood Area a letter to that effect, a letter that some are citing now as evidence of a broken promise by the county government.

But most of the measures Snook's letter spoke of didn't happen. And traffic has gotten worse, in part because students coming from Pennsylvania to Hagerstown Community College enter Robinwood Drive from the Smithsburg end.

Now the original alignment of the bypass is under consideration again, according to Gary Rohrer, the county's director of Public Works.

For affected residents, the good news is that the project may be 10 years off, Rohrer said. The bad news is that it's the least costly alternative to a traffic problem that will only grow worse when Washington County Hospital moves alongside the medical center that's already there.

That's just one of the things that has put the project back on county government's radar, Rohrer said. Someone who wants to develop property has offered a right-of-way and many members of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, who protested vigorously in 1998, have had a change of heart.

Still, Rohrer said, the county has considered a lot of alternatives.

Buying all the homes on one side of Robinwood drive was considered too expensive and it still wouldn't have yielded enough room to allow residents on the other side to get in and out of their driveways safely, he said.

Another proposed route fell through when the developer asked the county for $1 million for a key parcel, he said. The county said no, the developer sold the property and that option was effectively foreclosed.

Nothing is a "done deal," Rohrer said, but the four-lane bypass proposal would allow traffic to enter from Md. 64 and take pressure off that end of Robinwood Drive.

Asked if he anticipated making Robinwood Drive a dead-end road at Md. 64, Rohrer said "no." But he said the county could use "traffic-calming" measures that would make it more attractive for motorists to use the bypass than to enter Robinwood.

One possibility: Traffic on Robinwood going toward Smithsburg would flow that way freely, but traffic coming from Md. 64 would have to enter on the new bypass.

In hindsight, it would have been better if the county government had purchased homes along the road as they came on the market over the past 30 years. It didn't happen, because putting off a solution was easier than ruffling some residents' feathers.

But the county can't afford to ignore the issue any longer because of the two big traffic generators bringing people in and out - HCC and the hospital. It's one thing for a student to be late to class, but if traffic ties up an ambulance, that's a delay that could have fatal consequences.

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