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Residents of Thunder Hill cul-de-sac want 'offensive' street name changed

In a town whose street names have long been a mixture of poetic and puzzling, residents of one Columbia cul-de-sac say theirs is offensive and should be changed.

For more than four decades, Coon Hunt Court has garnered that reaction, starting as early as 1969, when a few people living in this small parcel in the Oakland Mills neighborhood of Thunder Hill complained about the name.

Yet the name remained and has raised eyebrows since. Now, though, there is strong support for switching street names, support that includes residents, village board members and the County Council member who not only represents the district, but also lives nearby.

"For 12 years, I've cringed every time somebody asks me, 'What's your address?' " said Rosalie Consiglio, who lives on Coon Hunt Court with her husband, Thomas Burick. "I think it's racist."

The word "coon" was first used for "raccoon" in 1742, but was being widely used as a derogatory term for "black person" by 1837, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which says that use was likely spurred on by a blackface minstrel act called "Zip Coon." The dictionary speculates that the word might also date back to the 18th century, when a 1767 opera in this country had a black character named "Raccoon."

The street names in Thunder Hill come out of an exhibition book of paintings by Andrew Wyeth — with the exception of "Coon Hunt Court," according to the definitive guide to the origin of local streets and neighborhoods, "Oh, you must live in Columbia!"

That exhibition book included a painting entitled "Raccoon," which led to another Thunder Hill road, "Raccoon Court." It also had a Wyeth piece entitled "The Coot Hunter," named for the coot, a type of bird found in Maine. Columbia historians wonder whether "Coon Hunt Court" was a variation.

Either way, by September 1969, some two years after those proposed street names were listed, a few displeased residents of Coon Hunt Court had contacted Columbia Association, according to a copy of a CA memo at the Columbia Archives.

"They felt this to be in poor taste," the memo said. "Could you please let me know if a change is possible?'

All of the residents would have had to agree to change it, according to a note scrawled on the memo. There is no indication of whether there was a vote.

Residents' OK needed

Today, renaming a street name in Howard County requires approval from 90 percent of the households on the street, according to Kent Sheubrooks, chief of the county Department of Planning and Zoning's division of land development.

With only six homes on Coon Hunt Court, residents would need to vote unanimously in favor.

Consiglio and Burick want a new street name. So, too, do Shirley Sickels and her husband, Gordon, who have lived there for about 24 years. And so do Heather Dorst and her husband, Michael Phillips, who have been residents on that road for 19 years. Residents of the other three homes were either unavailable or did not return a call seeking comment.

"I don't know if I can even say where I live to my friends," Dorst said. "It's distasteful."

Beyond that, the street sign has disappeared many times, residents said, which has posed a safety problem on more than one occasion when an ambulance had difficulty finding the road.

Residents have the backing of County Council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat who lives in the Oakland Mills neighborhood of Talbott Springs.

"As a resident, it comes to my attention every time I pass the street, and for years I have thought the street name, because of certain connotations, didn't really personify the diversity and the value of inclusion that has become synonymous with Columbia," Ball said.

Ball spoke in November to the Oakland Mills village board, which voted to support changing the street name. He said he will visit each home on Coon Hunt Court to get residents' signatures in support of a new name.

The county will require an application, which has not yet been filed, and a hearing before the Planning Board, Sheubrooks said. The application must suggest at least three new names, and the Planning Board makes the final choice.

The new street name also would need to be approved by emergency responders and theU.S. Postal Service, to avoid duplicating roads elsewhere.

Another Columbia street went through this process several years ago: Satan Wood Drive, in the Hickory Ridge neighborhood of Hawthorn, became Satinwood Drive in 2005. The change was pushed by residents mortified by the devilish reference — and the realization that "Satan Wood" was a misspelling of "Satin Wood," which comes from an Amy Lowell poem and was the intended street name.

Ball suggested several possible new names for "Coon Hunt Court" at the village board meeting, including "Christina's Court" and "Sunday Times Street," named for "Christina's World" and "Sunday Times," other Wyeth paintings. Shirley Sickels, meanwhile, said the road could become "Hunt Court."

Consiglio said she was open to the possibilities.

"As long as it's not something racist, I don't really care," she said.

Dorst, while supporting the name change, realized there would be a downside.

"I'm not excited about changing my address everywhere: checks, credit cards," she said. "It's as if you've moved."

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