Oregon Ridge Park Nature Center official reports destruction of property in painted tree exhibit

An Oregon Ridge Park Nature Center official filed a police report for destruction of property of a park exhibit composed of about 50 painted trees and descriptive plaques that has come under fire by a local environmental group.

The nature center official, who referred a reporter to the Baltimore County Office of Communications and whom the police wouldn’t identify, told police that 36 of the signs had been damaged at an estimated total value of $650, a police spokeswoman confirmed Thursday.

The exhibit, called “Forest of Hope,” was created as part of a recovery celebration for the Nikki Perlow Foundation, which helps young adults dealing with alcohol and drug addiction. Trees were painted with colorful water-based acrylic paint and more than 50 corresponding plaques describing the testimonies of those recovering from addiction were placed nearby. The project’s aim was to show the other side of addiction and that people can recover, said Gary Perlow, the foundation’s president and founder.

“Now you have a forest with 50 magnificent beautiful trees that tell a story, and there’s nothing that explains anything. People walk up this trail now and there’s nothing,” Perlow said.

The exhibit has prompted debate in Baltimore County regarding its possible environmental impact of the paint on the trees as well as the process it went through to be approved.

The county’s Commission on Environmental Quality presented recommendations to the County Council in May, seeking modifications to the approval process for some parks projects by revising the county code so that input would be required by more than just the rec and parks department’s director, as was the case with the painted trees project. One of the commission’s recommendations to the county executive was to have the signs removed “since they are a hazard and they distract from existing educational signage,” the recommendation document read.

The report of damage to the plaques, which was filed July 16 stated the official was unable to provide suspect information. She thought it could be a man who previously volunteered at the park that made it “clear to her that he dislikes the signs and what they represent,” the report said. The damage occurred between June 1 and June 30, according to the report, and the official had not seen the man on the property since April. Baltimore County Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Peach said there is no evidence against the man.

The Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Department had nothing to add and deferred to the police department, said Ellen Kobler, the county’s deputy communications director.

“It’s just awful that something like that could be done. It’s a project that was done for the community, both young and old, to really help break down the stigma tied to addiction,” Perlow, of Baltimore, said. “There are so many people that recover from this disease and are living a great life in recovery, and that’s what the forest was about. And we wanted to share that message with the public for, not only breaking the stigma, but education, also.”

Perlow said that when he met with the executive board of the foundation to discuss the plaque destruction, they felt it was a hate crime against people who have struggled with addiction.

The foundation Perlow runs was created in honor of his 21-year-old niece, Nikki Perlow, who died of an accidental overdose in 2007. Perlow said the cost of the painted tree exhibit was “well over” $100,000 and the value of the more than 50 plaques was over $6,000.

“We’re hoping that we can put signage up that’s more permanent there, so at least when people go there and they tour it, they’ll know what’s it about. I don’t think we’ll ever do a plaque for each tree because they’d probably get torn up and damaged again,” he said.

When contacted about the damage to the exhibit, Lois Jacobs, the environmental commission chair responded by saying “Regardless of what we would want, we wouldn’t want some outside person [doing something]," adding she hadn’t heard of the plaque destruction until a reporter contacted her. “It’s still vandalism. Whatever we want should be done through the proper channels.” She said Thursday the commission has not issued an official comment.

lbrennan@baltsun.com

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