County warns of stiff fines for converting public land to private use

September 06, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Residents who convert county parkland and open space to their own use are about to be warned that they will be fined up to $1,000 a day for every day they continue the practice.

Beginning in about two weeks, the Department of Recreation and Parks plans to issue warnings to the "hundreds" of residents who have built structures such as swing sets, treehouses or garden sheds on county property. Practically every piece of county-owned open space suffers from some kind of encroachment, said Jeffrey A. Bourne, director of recreation and parks.

The warnings, which will be posted on homes, give offenders an indication of the general nature of the violation and tell them they have a 10-day grace period in which to correct abuses, Mr. Bourne said.

"We're more than willing to work with people," he said. If residents make a good-faith effort to correct the problem but cannot do it within 10 days, the county might extend the grace period. "Otherwise, we'll move forward on the 11th day" with citations, Mr. Bourne said.

The citations will be similar to traffic tickets. Violators who continue to maintain illegal structures will be fined $50 to $100 a day.

After warning people about illegal structures, the parks department will turn to secondary encroachments such as woodpiles and the dumping of grass clippings, Mr. Bourne said.

The goal is not to punish, but to educate and inform, Mr. Bourne said. "We don't want to become grass police. That is not our function," he said. "Hopefully, the warnings will serve as an educational process."

Fines are nonetheless needed as an inducement for change, Mr. Bourne said, because education alone has not worked. "We have been trying to use the educational process and voluntary compliance, but the results have been spotty at best," he said. "We've been losing ground since 1978."

Mr. Bourne said some people have been "wonderfully cooperative once they understood the impact of what they were doing," but that many others have adamantly refused to retreat from what they now consider their personal part of county open space.

The County Council authorized the use of fines in May. Many of the people who will receive initial warnings are people his department has talked to "over and over again," Mr. Bourne said.

The first thing violators need to understand, he said, is that they could be held liable if someone is hurt using private playground equipment on public land. The second thing, he said, is that encroachment from people who mow open space to expand their backyards or to plant gardens causes erosion and environmental problems.

"The average maintained lawn is only minimally more capable of deterring runoff [from storms] than a hard surface," he said. "It is not nearly as effective as the significant vegetative ground cover accompanying mature woods."

As land is usurped by private residents, "less and less is available for wildlife and for the common use of residents of Howard County," Mr. Bourne said.

Most fines are $25 to $100 a day, but those for encroachment that could adversely affect the environment are steeper. Residents who mow grass, remove dead trees, grade soil or remove rocks or minerals from parkland and open space without written permission will be subject to fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 a day.

Similarly high fines will be imposed on people who use fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides on county parkland or open space without written permission.

The county maintains about 4,000 acres of parkland and 2,000 acres of open space. Mr. Bourne estimates that about 20,000 homes adjoin those sites.

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