Poor condition of city park in Arundel raises concern

Fort Smallwood is open despite its deterioration

February 14, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

The chain-link fences were meant to be a temporary remedy, to keep people out until the buildings and areas contaminated by lead paint could be cleaned up at 77-year-old Fort Smallwood Park.

But seven years later, sections of fence have fallen or disappeared at the Baltimore City-owned park in northern Anne Arundel County, a place that has raised the ire of county officials. The areas where elevated levels of lead paint were detected have not been cleaned up, and the park is open to visitors - despite warnings from consultants as early as 1998.

"There is a lot of work to be done at Fort Smallwood Park if children are expected to spend time here," wrote environmental analysts from Penniman & Browne Inc. in a 1998 report commissioned by then-city Baltimore Recreation and Parks Director Thomas V. Overton.

County Executive Janet S. Owens has offered to take control of Fort Smallwood Park, noting concern about security and maintenance on the wooded point on the Patapsco River. County officials are in negotiations with the city.

Baltimore City parks officials have determined that Fort Smallwood "is safe for public use," said Baltimore Recreation and Parks Department spokeswoman Marcy Crump. The fencing provides an adequate barrier around the decades-old buildings and surrounding grounds that are contaminated with lead paint, she said.

But a recent visit revealed that several sections of fence had been leveled or had disappeared, especially around the fort itself. Around other buildings, holes had been punched through the fences. There were no fences around the playground equipment.

The swing sets and monkey bars had cracked paint. The vinyl covers for some of the child harnesses had fallen off, and the exposed metal frames were rusted. One of the playgrounds was littered with broken glass, and a small tree was growing under one of the slide ladders.

Seven years ago, the environmental consultants determined "all paint is in very poor condition." Little or no action has been taken since to address the cracking, flaking paint.

City health officials said a potential, though likely minimal, threat to patrons exists, but they added that a new round of tests is needed to determine how the risk has changed over seven years. The park was flooded in 2003 by Tropical Storm Isabel.

"Testing from 1998 wouldn't be valid today," said Olivia Farrow, assistant city health commissioner for environmental science.

Crump said she was unaware of the condition of the fencing. Connie A. Brown, the city's associate director of recreation and parks, said, "I'm sure it's an ongoing thing that we will keep up with."

If the county were to acquire the park, Anne Arundel officials likely would order an environmental site assessment, involving soil and water tests, in order to determine a plan for renovation, said John T. Keene, chief of planning and construction for the county's Recreation and Parks Department.

The 1998 report, however, tends to buttress assertions from county leaders and nearby residents that the city has neglected to care for the 100-acre park, named for the ruins of a fort that remain on the site and were, along with Fort McHenry and others, part of Baltimore's harbor defenses.

Anne Arundel officials are reviewing the report, Owens spokeswoman Jody Couser said.

"I'm sure that in the course of discussion about the maintenance and security issues that that will be discussed," Baltimore Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock said.

Tests from 1998 revealed levels of lead paint as high as four times the federal standard outside a few buildings, including the shuttered concession stands and the fort. Inside the structures, levels were up to 19 times that of federal guidelines.

An estimate at the time put cleanup costs at $181,000, an amount that now would be "considerably more," said Brown, the city's associate parks director.

City parks officials, however, said they are gradually replacing the 30-year-old equipment at the two park playgrounds, an effort that started in 2001. The swings and slides are gone, and only the original wooden equipment remains, Crump said.

Nearby residents familiar with the park contend that the playground equipment has not been replaced.

The city has cleaned up or replaced equipment at more than 70 playgrounds in recent years. But Fort Smallwood hasn't been a priority because officials have focused on sites at elementary schools and neighborhood parks that draw many children, a city spokesman said.

Overton, the former Baltimore recreation and parks director who commissioned the 1998 environmental study, said he was surprised that the city didn't immediately react to report's findings and eliminate the lead paint. He said he held a meeting with several city agencies on the heels of the report's findings to convey the risk.

But about the time Overton became acting director in 1997, the maintenance division of the parks department was reassigned to the city's Department of Public Works. Overton said he could only make maintenance requests.

"I didn't have the wherewithal to get it done," he said. "I just had to be a bug in somebody else's ear."

Public Works immediately responded to Overton's request to put up fencing at Fort Smallwood. Overton said he thought that lead-paint contamination was cleaned up when he stepped down as director in 2000.

"What has gone on for the past five years?" Overton said.

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