Neighbors hoping art proves a traffic-stopper

Small Montgomery town crafts a roadside show to slow speeding drivers

August 12, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

HYATTSTOWN -- Drivers can't help but slow down to look at the outlandish 15-piece sculpture show along this little artist colony's only road, from the oversized relative of Mr. Potato Head waving his white-gloved hand at passers-by to the giant pink angel made of foam sitting atop a sky-high column.

And that's just the point.

Part public art, part traffic control strategy, The Road Show, as neighbors call it, was born out of desperation. Tired of cars speeding and oversized trucks hurtling down winding Frederick Road -- and having their pleas for relief ignored by government officials -- neighbors got together to plant the large statues in front yards. Drivers will notice the exhibit and tap the brakes to check out the art, or so goes the thinking.

"We've become sculpture vigilantes," local artist Linda Tetens, who helped put it all together, said with a laugh.

You could miss this small, historic Montgomery County town (population: 65) if you speed down its main street, which is where this story begins.

Frederick Road, splitting Hyattstown in two, has become a popular bypass for jammed Interstate 270, which runs parallel less than a mile to the west. The shady two-lane street is a favorite detour for speeding commuters -- and for overweight trucks trying to skip the interstate's nearby weigh station. With the Frederick County town of Urbana, just a few miles north, growing by thousands of homes, the situation is only getting worse, neighbors say.

Tetens and her neighbors have lobbied to have the speed limit on what is state Route 355 lowered from 30 mph -- not that many cars go even that slow. They have also begged police to stop offenders and have even taken to clocking speeders on their own.

"We're intent on protecting our community," said Patrick Casselman, a four-year Hyattstown resident who is restoring a 150-year-old house.

"There's not a lot of us, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we're becoming squeakier all the time," said Tom Barse, a lawyer-turned-high school teacher who carved the Mr. Potato Head look-alike out of wood.

The folks in Hyattstown can't avoid crossing the road. Those on the west side risk their lives daily to scurry across to their mailboxes. The only sidewalk, an overgrown spit of asphalt, is on the other side. The only crosswalk was recently removed -- it was deemed too dangerous.

Meanwhile, the vibrations from the trucks coming through have knocked pictures off walls and done who knows what to the foundations of the old houses here, neighbors say.

"When you can't cross the street, it's hard to talk to your neighbors, compared to when you're on a street that's 25 miles per hour and you can cross without worry," Tetens said.

It was an accident that first spurred Tetens to action. About two years ago, a neighbor was slowly backing out of her driveway and was hit by a motorcycle that came speeding around the bend. Tetens heard the impact from inside her nearly 200-year-old house.

After that, Tetens took up posterboard and markers and drew signs imploring: "SLOW DOWN." That worked for a while, until the elements brought the homemade signs down and the speeds back up. Earlier this year, the county Police Department temporarily installed a giant electronic sign displaying speeds as people drove by. It would flash yellow for speeds over 45, red for speeds over 60.

"It flashed red or yellow all weekend," Casselman said.

Tetens and Casselman's wife, Rosanne, spent several hours by the road one day wielding a radar gun, also provided by county police. Drivers made obscene gestures and honked at them. One man got out of his car and, for some reason, took a photograph of them.

Tetens' request for a speed-limit reduction has been rejected. "Lowering the speed limit would create a condition of disrespect by motorists deeming it unrealistic and would not produce the desired results," State Highway Administration engineer Charlie K. Watkins wrote to her in April.

Speed limits are clearly posted, as are signs prohibiting heavy-truck traffic, said Sandra F. Dobson, an SHA spokeswoman. Speed bumps, which some neighbors say they'd like, aren't permitted on Maryland's state roads, she said. "We've done everything as far as engineering is concerned that we can do for the road," she said. "It's now an enforcement issue."

Enforcement has been complicated by the terrain, said Lucille Baur, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County police. Hyattstown is on the downward slope of a hill and the road's curves make it difficult to pull over speeders safely, but Baur said that doesn't mean officers are ignoring the residents there.

Neighbors, however, suspect the town's proximity to Frederick County -- the last sculpture is less than 100 yards from the county line -- means they are sometimes forgotten by Montgomery County government, based 20 miles away in Rockville.

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