Pheasant Ridge II neighbors battle over tot lot site


A new neighborhood in River Hill village is showing all the signs of an age-old "Not In My Back Yard" battle.

But the source of the dissension among new neighbors is not a big, intrusive project. It's a proposed children's playground -- usually a staple of Columbia communities.

The originally proposed site for the new tot lot, some residents say, would diminish their property values, impinge upon their privacy, threaten their security and attract rowdy teen-agers.

But some of these opponents' neighbors say they're missing the whole point of living in Columbia, a sense of community.

"It's not that we're against any tot lot. You can have your tot lot," said Allan Rosenberger, whose property backs up to the originally proposed site. "We just don't want it back here."

Others in the 49-home Pheasant Ridge II neighborhood say Mr. Rosenberger and other vocal opponents of the playground are advocating an alternative site in a less convenient location -- largely out of their self-interest.

"The open space is shared space. Everybody pays taxes for its use," said Susan Kantor-Tupp, who lives several houses away from Mr. Rosenberger and the originally proposed site for the tot lot. "We're not talking about a prison or a shopping mall. We're talking about four swings and a sliding board."

The River Hill village board has grappled with the ins and outs of the issue for seven months without making a decision, causing bad blood among residents.

"It's unfortunate that they've become so emotional about it, really," said the village board chairman, Kathy Ruben, adding that the board has moved slowly to make the best decision for the developing community's future.

The proposed tot lot site that caused the uproar is a wooded area designated as open space between Red Clover Lane and Winter Grain Path in River Hill, Columbia's 10th and final village. Several alternative sites, including a River Hill area that has yet to be developed, are now under consideration by the village board, Columbia developer The Rouse Co. and the nonprofit Columbia Association, which builds the planned community's bike paths and tot lots.

But each new site that's proposed draws new opposition from those living nearby.

Residents objecting to the proposed site say no plan for the development of the open space had been prepared when they bought their homes in the exclusive community, where prices range from about $300,000 to $500,000. They paid $30,000 or more extra for premium lots with more privacy, they say.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster," said William Passmore, a homeowner near the first proposed site. "It's the biggest investment in our lives, for God's sake. It's a Catch-22. You pay a high premium, and all of a sudden they stick a tot lot behind you. Why pay the extra $30,000 to $40,000 when your privacy will be taken away."

But other neighbors note all home buyers in Columbia sign documents explaining that designated open-space areas are used for certain purposes and that the exact use of the land is not always pre-determined. Columbia has more than 130 tot lots.

But, about a decade ago, a Columbia planning committee decided open-space plans for new communities should be completed in detail before lot sales, so that buyers could make informed decisions, said Alton J. Scavo, who manages Columbia's development for Rouse.

This was not done in the Pheasant Ridge II community, he said.

One of the leading opponents of the tot lot, Mr. Rosenberger, said he's been told by some of his neighbors that if he didn't want paths or tot lots behind his house, he should have avoided Columbia. "Maybe that idea that started in the 1960s was fine, but as time goes by, there's less and less space being allocated for open space," he said.

One factor in the debate is that River Hill residents say they have less usable open space than older Columbia neighborhoods, with much of it wetlands. The Columbia ideal of paths and tot lots in every neighborhood may be "somewhat antiquated," said Mr. Passmore. "It's starting to get a little crowded."

Ms. Kantor-Tupp said that argument is a "bunch of malarkey. People are still dying to get into Columbia for the school system and the amenity-rich community we have for kids."

Arguments that a nearby tot lot or path causes property values to decline or creates security risks are myths, she said.

The River Hill imbroglio is nothing new to Columbia, Mr. Scavo said: "In 27 years, we've seen it over and over before. It's all very understandable. It's not a question of right or wrong."

Mr. Berson said the village board's final decision is bound to displease some residents. "We want to put this behind us," he said.

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