The children of Clary's Forest can slide, swing and ride horsies now that the engineers, surveyors and draftsmen have been paid.
After the Columbia Association spent four years and about $40,000, the county Planning Board last week approved site-development plans for the last pair of six tot lots in the Hickory Ridge village neighborhood.
Until 1988, building a playground in a Columbia neighborhood took about three weeks of planning and a $50 building permit, said Denis Ellis, land development manager for the Columbia Association, which builds the tot lots.
The building permits are still $50, but a change in county planning requirements has raised the cost of planning each tot lot to between $6,000 and $8,000 in professional and governmental fees, Mr. Ellis said.
"In Running Brook, my kids could walk to three tot lots, and here it has taken six years," said Joan Schwartz, a mother of three who now lives in Clary's Forest. "My kids are almost too old to use them."
The association has built four of the lots, including one within walking distance of the Schwartz's home. The last two should be built by early autumn, Mr. Ellis said.
"I was personally delighted to see those Clary's Forest tot lots come through . . . initial planning for those took place when I was on the village board," said Joan Lancos, one of the planning board members who approved the plans.
Since she and her fellow village board members decided where to put the tot lots, Mrs. Lancos has served two years on the Columbia Council, her successor has served two years on the council and now a new council member represents the village of Hickory Ridge. "It's been five or six years since we started locating these tot lots," she said. "The kids that were going to use those tot lots are now in middle school."
Association officials met two years ago with county Planning and Zoning Department staff to try to cut back on the red tape. But putting up a playground is still a major project, Mr. Ellis said.
"We've streamlined the process so that we're not asking them for more information than is necessary," said Marsha McLaughlin, assistant director of the planning and zoning department.
Tot lots were brought under the site-plan requirement in the wake of complaints about a backstop in Kings Contrivance. An opinion from the county Office of Law said such structures must go through the same approval process that a building is subject to, Ms. McLaughlin said. The opinion was codified to include specific uses such as tot lots and pathways by the county council in February 1989.
"If someone's going to have a path that goes right by their house, it gives them a chance to speak in front of the Planning Board," Ms. McLaughlin said. The process also helps keeps such projects away from sensitive wetlands, she added.
JTC But Columbia Association officials have maintained that they did just fine without the costly requirement. "We've worked out an agreement, but it is still quite detailed, quite expensive and quite time-consuming," Mr. Ellis said. Each tot lot's site-development plan took four or five months before approval, and before those could be started, a site development plan for the entire neighborhood, showing pathways and approximate tot lot locations, had to be done at a cost of about $41,000.
To meet subdivision plans, the association must pay engineers, surveyors and draftsmen to study each site's topography, easements, wetland buffers, 100-year flood plain areas and utility rights-of-way.
They also have to detail the location and dimensions of playground equipment, which usually consists of a timber fort with a sliding board, a sandbox, swings, spring animals, and a wooden bench.
Fortunately, planners were able to keep all six playgrounds away from wetlands, to build on which requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
One of the last two, however, is close enough to require an additional three- to four-month approval process, Mr. Ellis explained.
"In this case, we just have to get an exemption letter, because we're not in the wetland, we're just in the wetland buffer. The problem is, you have to have a wetland study and a wetland delineation. So, you have to show where you are in relation to the wetland."
And that's all there is to it.