Top Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City officials met last week to discuss the future of Fort Smallwood Park, a 100-acre, city-owned property within the county that for years has been the subject of complaints by neighbors.
County Executive Janet S. Owens, who has long sought to acquire the park for the county, met several times with Mayor Martin O'Malley, aides to both confirmed. Details of the talks were not revealed, but any agreement that might be reached is expected to address maintenance and security issues at the 77-year-old park.
Owens sent a letter to Baltimore Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock on Jan. 5, asking for the two sides to work together on security concerns brought up by residents over the past few years, including shootings, rowdy parties, drug use and drag racing.
The next day, Owens restated her long-intended goal of acquiring the wooded park on the shore of the Patapsco River with panoramic views of the Chesapeake Bay.
Neighbors of the site have for years criticized the city's handling of the park. Much of the park's infrastructure is in disrepair, and some areas are contaminated with lead paint.
A former director of the city's Recreation and Parks Department expressed shock last week that the city apparently hasn't removed the structures and soil underneath the equipment at two park playgrounds, which he said contain "astronomical" levels of lead paint.
Thomas V. Overton, director of the city Recreation and Parks Department from 1997 to 2002, said he commissioned a report on lead-paint levels at the park, and it recommended that the playground equipment be immediately ripped up and the soil removed. City officials said they were unable to locate the report as of Friday.
The city has rebuffed for more than a decade previous county overtures to acquire the land. More than two years ago, city officials were unable to follow through on an agreement with Anne Arundel County that would have improved the park's aging infrastructure because of budget constraints, Owens said.
"The mayor takes the concerns of the residents seriously in regard to giving them maximum security" and maintenance at the park, said Hitchcock, who has held several meetings recently with city parks officials and city and county police about Fort Smallwood.
Hitchcock said she also has articulated O'Malley's commitment to Fort Smallwood in phone calls with area residents.
Residents and county officials, however, have contended that only Anne Arundel has the motivation and the resources to resurrect the park.
Longtime residents who live beyond the gates say the city's neglect has spread to the policing of the park.
"It's a no-man's land," said Marnie Louk, who lives within a few hundred feet of the park gates.
Baltimore police are charged with patrolling the park, but some residents said that officers respond to a call three or four hours later, if at all. County police don't patrol inside the park, saying they lack jurisdiction.
For several years, residents have voiced complaints to city, county and state leaders about rifle fire, drag racers and dirt bikers, and drug use.
But the severe problems that some residents describe are not what city officials and county police say they are seeing.
Officials in both jurisdictions acknowledge that drinking and vandalism are a problem at the park after dusk. But they contend that Fort Smallwood Park is not a place of rampant lawlessness.
Millions in repairs
Almost everyone agrees on the dilapidated condition of the park, which the city purchased from the federal government in 1927. The county estimates that Fort Smallwood, named in honor of former Maryland governor and Continental Army Gen. William Smallwood, needs about $10 million in repairs.
"It needs a complete reconstruction," said John T. Keene, chief of planning and construction for the county's Recreation and Parks Department.
Kathy Fordyce, who grew up in Pasadena, moved to a neighborhood near the park 2 1/2 years ago. The equipment is the same as she remembers when she was a child. "And I'm 44 years old," she said.
"It should be under someone else's jurisdiction, unless you have the staff and the wherewithal to deal with the upkeep," Overton said.
Funding woes six years ago nearly led to the closing of Fort Smallwood Park, but city leaders said they are now living up to their commitment to care for the park. The city last year finished a $900,000 replacement of the park's water treatment plant, said Connie A. Brown, the city's associate parks director.
Also, construction will begin this summer to replace the fishing pier, said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will fund three-quarters of the $360,000 cost, with the rest coming from the city, he said.
But some county officials remained steadfast in their desire to claim the park for Anne Arundel.
"We can't force them to sell," said County Council President Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican. "But by keeping up the pressure, the city will eventually realize that it's in their best interest to part with the property."
An article in the local news section Jan. 31 incorrectly reported the year in which Thomas V. Overton stepped down as Baltimore parks and recreation director. He served as director from 1997 to 2000.The Sun regrets the errors.