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Residents clash over tot lot


The drowning of a 23-month-old boy who wandered from a tot lot and fell into Lake Elkhorn in September has split Columbia residents over what should be done with the playground.

Columbia Association board members reported a groundswell of conflicting e-mails and phone calls in the months after the incident, some begging them to consider putting a fence or natural buffer around the playground, others asking that it be moved somewhere else, while others said it should be left as it is.

This week, the issue will be in front of the community once again, as members of the Owen Brown village board are briefed Tuesday on eight possible fence designs and the CA board considers a motion to adopt one of those designs Thursday.

Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, board member for the Village of Owen Brown, where the playground is located, said residents near the Lake Elkhorn tot lot are concerned about the impact of a fence on the aesthetics of the neighborhood.

"I've got a lot of letters and things from people that live here, and they say they don't want the fence," Atkinson-Stewart said.

Barbara L. Russell, board member of the Village of Oakland Mills, said she received dozens of e-mails and phone calls from residents, including petitions signed by hundreds of residents.

"By far, the overwhelming majority has been in favor of fencing the tot lot," Russell said. "We've had a couple of people that have said remove the tot lot and place it someplace else. A couple of people have said they don't want the tot lot fenced."

Tom O'Connor, chairman of the board, said that, judging from the e-mails from residents, there is a divide among between generations.

"I see people who have grown children say it's a supervision problem and it was the lack of that which caused the problem," he said. "I hear things like, 'It's the younger generation that does not want to take responsibility.'"

After the drowning death of Alex Ferrera, a group of parents formed a group to ask the CA board to place a fence around the tot lot.

Jennifer Terrasa, a Village of Kings Contrivance parent who has headed the group, said she received about 200 e-mails from residents in support of a fence around the playground, though some have been opposed.

"There are people who are concerned about preserving the aesthetics of the community," Terrasa said. "They would prefer an option that is not encasing."

The tot lot is about 150 feet from the dock on the lake and about 45 feet from the sidewalk of Cradlerock Way.

In October, a consultant from the National Program for Playground Safety, hired by CA concluded, "There is no compelling need to place a fence around the play area."

But parents criticized the report, and the CA board approved a motion to place a fence or natural buffer around the playground.

During a board meeting last month, CA staff presented the board with eight design plans for enclosing the playground. A motion is before the board to consider approving - during its Thursday meeting - a fence with two entry points.

The board also told Chick Rhodehamel, Columbia Association vice president for open-space management, to present all eight design options to the Owen Brown board during its meeting Tuesday. The fencing design has to be approved by the Owen Brown architectural committee.

Ian Ferguson, 76, of the Village of Wilde Lake, who opposes fencing the playground, said that it could set a precedent for fencing any, if not all, of CA's more than 160 tot lots.

"They should not build it for the precedence issue," Ferguson said last week. "If you got a 'no' quote from the consultant, I think you can seriously consider that."

Residents such as Valerie E. Alexander, 50, of the Village of Hickory Ridge, who says she strolls around Lake Elkhorn on occasion, is cautious about fence design.

"Anytime you put up a fence, you put up a barrier from vision and reaction," said Alexander, who has two children. "A fence can give a false sense of security."

Though she is not against the concept of a fence, she opposes the large structures described as options in the CA report.

"To me, the visual line is important in the design. If you can see them, you can catch them. ... If somebody can give a safer fence, and it's even ugly, it would be fine."

John McGing, 51, of the Village of Harper's Choice, said tearing down the tot lot would be the best solution.

"I think nobody is going to be happy," he said. "There are folks that don't want a fence there for aesthetic reasons and ones that want a fence for safety. If it's that much of a nuisance, eliminate it."

McGing said removing the playground would allow the community and CA officials enough time to reach a solution for the playground's fate without worrying about another drowning.

"You can't use the grounds at all then. It's off limits and you can take it away until the community decides what it wants to do with it."

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