Tired of late night beer parties, vandalism and other illegal activity at four tot lots in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, its board has asked the Columbia Council to make it easier for police to patrol and make arrests in the privately owned areas.
"Certain areas have gotten to be night-time hangouts," said Jane Parrish, Hickory Ridge village manager, noting reports of trash can burnings and other destructive acts.
As a result, the village board has asked the council to put the village's tot lots under the jurisdiction of a countywide public recreational ordinance that gives the police broader enforcement power in designated areas.
The request is scheduled for a vote by the council tomorrow night.
"What we're trying to stop is the property damage and the public disturbances," said Frederick Pryor, a Columbia Association vice president and director of open space management.
The complaints in Hickory Ridge come at a time of rising vandalism and disruptions at many of Columbia's 137 tot lots. Vandalism at open spaces and buildings is estimated to have cost CA about $80,000 in the past year.
Some residents in an area of Columbia's newest village, River Hill, even have been fighting for months to stop a planned lot from being built near their houses.
If the council agrees with the Hickory Ridge request, it then would go to the county Department of Recreation and Parks and the county police for final approval, perhaps within a month.
After that, police could post signs restricting use of those areas from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., said Sgt. Steve Keller, a police spokesman.
Any adult in the tot lot after hours could be stopped and given a warning or a civil citation, even if the person was committing no crime, he said. The maximum penalty: a $500 fine, 30 days in the Howard County Detention Center, or both. Juveniles would be dealt with through the juvenile courts.
The county ordinance that gives that authority -- known as Title 19 -- is an important tool in cracking down on nuisance activity on private property, Mr. Pryor said. Unless private property is specifically designated under Title 19, police first must notify the property owners about crimes being committed on their property and then wait for them to arrive and verify that a person was trespassing, he said.
That creates problems, especially when owners can't be found, he said.
Countywide, there are more than 500 acres of land that come under the ordinance, said Mark Raab, supervisor of land management for recreation and parks.
Of the 3,000 acres of CA-owned open space in Columbia, about 300 acres are listed under Title 19, Mr. Pryor said.
Though a last resort when neighbors cannot stop violators on their own, he said, the ordinance works.
Once land has been designated under Title 19, "all of a sudden it's mute," he said.
Though the Hickory Ridge village board is specifically targeting four tot lots, the Title 19 designation also would affect pathways leading to those tot lots, or a total of seven acres, said Mr. Pryor.
The village board's request follows a series of complaints since the spring about vandalism, graffiti, fires, drug usage and late night teen-age gatherings at four tot lots in the southern part of Clemens Crossing.
"I assume it's kids, but you can't always be sure that's the case," said Mike Rethman, who represents Hickory Ridge on the Columbia Council.
The councilman said a strong message needs to be sent.
"The only way to break that chain is to catch these people," he said.
The vandalism problem is so pervasive that even youngsters recognize the damage.
Fourteen-year-old Erin Loomis, of Hickory Ridge, said she baby-sits three children and takes them to a tot lot near Martin Road once a week.
She has observed broken glass, vandalism and graffiti.
"Little kids still have fun there," she said, "but you can go around and read things."