CA votes to reopen tot lot


After being repeatedly berated by a standing-room-only crowd of angry residents, a besieged Columbia Association board has reversed its decision to close a popular Lake Elkhorn tot lot.

The board rescinded its recent decision after the testimony of dozens of residents who were among a crowd of more than 100 that filled the board room and foyer at the association headquarters Wednesday night. The residents made it clear to the 10-member board that its vote June 8 was done in haste and without adequate resident input.

"You have seen by our presence here that you have entered the mother lion's den," Amy Campbell, an Owen Brown resident, told the board. "We get angry when you mess with our kids. ... I think with your decision, you have illustrated unbelievable disrespect for the families of Columbia."

Campbell was referring to the board's decision to not place a fence around the tot lot in Owen Brown but instead immediately close it and remove the play equipment.

A group of parents has lobbied the board to erect a barrier around the playground off Cradlerock Way after a 23-month-old boy, who was in the custody of a caregiver, wandered from the tot lot and drowned in the lake in September. The tot lot is about 150 feet from the dock of the lake.

At Wednesday's meeting - which Columbia Association board Chairman Tom O'Connor called in response to residents' criticism and because the board did not consider that the Owen Brown executive architectural committee needs to approve the playground removal - emotional parents and concerned residents testified for more than two hours.

Terms like "ridiculous" and "wrong" echoed from residents' lips.

One resident held up a sign that said: "Don't Close Our Park!"

The board received petitions - signed by hundreds - asking it to reverse the playground's closure.

Owen Brown resident Jeanne Moore spoke in a shaky voice as she pleaded with the board to change its decision.

"Put up a barrier, it seems so simple, but you made it so difficult," said Moore, while reading from notes scribbled on the back of a paper plate she picked up during the meeting as her 8-year-old son stood next to her.

Campbell told the board that by removing the playground, the board is "negating this area as a place for families to congregate."

"Our kids have as much a right to Columbia as any of you," she said. "I wonder if any of you care for our children and our families."

Board member Phil Marcus of Kings Contrivance asked Campbell if she would support removing the current tot lot and replacing it with a smaller one.

Following a brief uproar of "boos" from the audience, Campbell responded: "That would be the worst decision you can make because the same amount of kids will still be coming, and they will be all in one area now."

After the board gave everyone who wanted to testify the opportunity, board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown presented a motion to rescind the earlier decision to close the tot lot. The vote was 8-0, with two abstentions.

The audience applauded.

"I am absolutely thrilled that they're leaving the playground. I think that was really good news for the community," said Jennifer Terrasa, a Kings Contrivance parent who has headed the effort to get a fence built around the tot lot, after the meeting.

In a telephone interview, Terrasa said she believes there are many other options for the board to consider besides removing the playground or leaving it as it is.

"I think it's the wrong decision to take it out, and I think it's the wrong decision to leave it without additional safety measures," she said.

O'Connor said the topic could be brought up again at the board's next meeting on Thursday, when the issue could be sent to a board committee. Should that happen, O'Connor said a committee would meet publicly to discuss the tot lot and would make a recommendation to the board.

O'Connor said the board's rescinding its decision "was inevitable."

"When somebody comes up with a petition with 350 names on it, you have to understand what's happening," he said.

However, O'Connor said the board's vote to close the tot lot "worked out for the best" because it prompted residents to "come out and say what they really wanted."

"We never had anyone come out and address the issue the way it was [Wednesday night]," O'Connor said. "It's a hard way to do it, it was little painful. But we got to the right answer for now."

Board member Patrick von Schlag of River Hill said he was "thrilled" by the large audience turnout.

"By having the board deepen the participation of the public, we are able to have the broader discussion that needs to happen now," he said.

Von Schlag said the board's decision last week to close the tot lot "was made in an environment where we felt we were given the choice to fence the thing or remove it all together."

By yesterday, signs CA had erected at the playground to indicate its closure were removed.

Dozens of children played on the tot lot as some parents watched from park benches and sat on blankets spread out on the grass between the playground and the lake.

The parents said they were happy that the board members changed their mind.

"He likes this place because of the swings, the bike ride [to the playground] and there are lots of kids here all the time," Christina Hansen of Owen Brown said of her 2-year-old son. "We just like everything about it. To lose that, it would be bad."

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