Columbia's 146 tot lots -- originally designed as convenient play areas for small children -- have become unofficial teen lots.
Unsupervised and in many cases secluded, the playgrounds intended for toddlers are frequently used for underage drinking, smoking, swearing, littering, sexual activity and vandalism, according to neighbors.
Teen-agers -- while insisting that such complaints are exaggerated -- point out that they have few other places to congregate in a community they say does little to provide recreational opportunities for young people.
"We're in your front lawn because there's nowhere better to go," said a 15-year-old who identified himself as Evan and who stopped at the Halflight Garth tot lot in Columbia's Long Reach village with some friends recently.
But some residents who live near tot lots take a less than sympathetic view.
"I think they are a bad idea because they aren't monitored at all," said Karen Jean Camorali, who lives near the Halflight Garth tot lot. "They're more of a nuisance because teen-agers hang out there. You go up to the majority of them and you see broken glass and trash."
The tot lots were not designed for teen-agers but for preschoolers as playgrounds within walking distance of their homes, with swing sets, sliding boards and sandboxes, said Fred Pryor, director of open space management for the Columbia Association (CA).
Each cost about $18,000, and vandalism can be expensive.
This year, CA has spent about $1,680 to repair malicious damage at a dozen tot lots. Last year, CA logged 33 instances of vandalism at tot lots, costing $3,380 to repair.
"They've slashed swing sets, set fires to trash containers, fires to wooden bridges -- whatever you can imagine can be done," said Pryor.
To deal with such vandalism cases, CA has placed 99 tot lots throughout Columbia under Title 19, a county ordinance that gives police authority to respond to complaints on the privately owned lots without first contacting CA.
"It's basically the only tool we have," said Pryor, who noted that about 458 acres of CA's 2,900 acres of open space are under Title 19. "Most of this is kids hanging out. They think they're having fun by destroying something or cutting something."
County police are preparing a countywide campaign to fight vandalism and graffiti at property, including tot lots, with two officers who are under the direction of Capt. Richard E. Hall, commander of the Southern District.
In addition, county police on bicycles patrol open spaces and bicycle paths across Columbia, including tot lots.
But some who live near troubled tot lots say the county and police efforts provide little lasting relief.
Camorali, who has an 11-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter, said teen-agers at the tot lot in her Long Reach cul-de-sac frequently are heard swearing into the night.
"The typical type things teen-agers will do because they are bored and have nothing to do," said Camorali, who said that neighbors have to pick up the trash the teen-agers leave behind.
Two of the most serious incidents at the Halflight Garth tot lot occurred last summer, when a neighbor called police after finding a runaway sleeping under a swing set, and in November, when a neighbor found a 12-inch knife there, Camorali said.
One afternoon at the same tot lot, more than 40 cigarette butts were found in the sandbox. A Budweiser bottle was under the sliding board.
Across town in east Columbia, residents voice similar complaints about teen-agers at the tot lot in the woods off Windbell Way and Hickory Limb in Owen Brown village.
"This tot lot is a little bit more secluded than some. Often times, we've found folks have hung out at night, leaving broken bottles and glass," said a woman with three small children; she asked not to be identified. "When we come to the tot lot, we come and clean up some."
In Columbia's newest and final village, River Hill, the issue of tot lots has created a rift between residents.
"We have always felt it to be a positive thing," said Caroline Kosisky, mother of a 9-year-old and 7-year-old who lives on Winter Grain Path in Pheasant Ridge II, where a tot lot is planned near a stream.
Kosisky, a Montgomery County kindergarten teacher, said she lets her youngest son go to a neighbor's yard to play.
"I'd like to see one [tot lot] built so he could use it," she said. "I don't think a lot of older kids will find it cool to hang around at a tot lot."
But other residents fear the lot will be too close to their back yards and will attract unruly teen-agers.
Stacey Robuck and Diane Maggio, who live several houses away, oppose the proposed tot lot, saying it wasn't in the plans when they bought their homes.
The women said most young people in the neighborhood are older, and that families with younger children have their own play sets.