CA tot lot buffer or fence OK'd

Board votes to place a barrier at playground near Lake Elkhorn after parents denounce report


A plan to place a fence or natural buffer at the Lake Elkhorn tot lot has been approved by the Columbia Association board of directors.

After angry parents denounced a report that concluded a fence was unnecessary, the board discussed the issue for more than an hour Thursday night, and then voted unanimously that something needed to be done.

"I feel good about the decision," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, board member from Owen Brown, the location of the Lake Elkhorn tot lot where Alex Ferrera, a 23-month-old who lived in Laurel, drowned in September.

"To me, we have gone all the way around to what the Owen Brown Village Board originally said -- to have bushes or natural barriers. I'm just proud we came to that decision," Atkinson-Stewart said.

Chick Rhodehamel, Columbia Association vice president for open-space management, said his staff will evaluate the tot lot site and make recommendations whether fencing or a natural buffer should be used. A report is to be released by next month.

After the drowning, concerned parents attended an association board meeting in October, urging members to build a fence around the tot lot, which is 160 feet from the lake. The tot lot is bordered by a slope to the lake's dock, Cradlerock Way and a line of trees.

During the October meeting, board members authorized the association to spend up to $20,000 to hire a consultant to conduct a safety evaluation of the playground.

The report, from the National Program for Playground Safety, was released last week. It concluded: "There is no compelling need to place a fence around the play area."

Some board members and parents were critical of the report because it did not address the main issue -- whether a fence or barrier was necessary.

"I was so disappointed when I read this report, not because it did not recommend what I wanted but because it does not answer the questions raised on a meaningful level" said Kings Contrivance resident Jen Terrasa, reading a prepared statement during a speak-out session.

"The report spends a good deal of time addressing many of the particular playground features such as spacing between guardrails, fall surfacing and maintenance of equipment -- all of which are important, but none of which were questioned during this process."

During the board's discussion that followed the residents' speak-out, suggestions were posed, including removing the tot lot, not adding a fence or prohibiting children of certain ages from using the playground. In the end, board members said, they compromised to make sure a solution was reached.

Phil Marcus, the board member from Kings Contrivance, said he and a few other members initially felt that no fence was needed. That changed as the discussion continued.

"I was slightly persuaded at the end that putting a fence there would really help," Marcus said.

Once the decision was made, parents were pleased but still had concerns.

"I think it should still be a fence, but, at least they are doing something," said Susan Defibaugh, a mother of two children who lives near the Lake Elkhorn playground.

Terrasa had a similar reaction and said she preferred to have more input with Columbia Association staff members as they review installation of a fence or natural buffer.

"I'm more optimistic, as well as discouraged, by the process of not being able to have a question-and-answer session so we can give [association staff members] answers to their concerns," she said.

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