Tot lot issue hovers over CA

Situation remains in a stalemate as board tries to decide on acceptable plan

June 18, 2006|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

Soon after a toddler drowned in Lake Elkhorn last fall after playing at the nearby tot lot, a group of residents convened to lobby the Columbia Association board to erect a fence around the play area.

But today, after rounds and rounds of board discussion, a commissioned $20,000 study and repeated resident outcry, the playground remains as it was that day -- with no barrier and no clear plan in sight for how the board will address the perceived safety issue, if at all.

"This thing could still be going on in September," said board Chairman Tom O'Connor.

If that turns out to be the case, a year would have passed since the death of 23-month-old Alex Ferrera on Sept. 2 without the board reaching a decision on what to do with the playground off Cradlerock Way.

"I have been surprised repeatedly by the process," said Jennifer Terrasa, a Kings Contrivance parent who has headed the effort to get a fence built around the tot lot. "When I brought this to them in September, I thought they would have either made a decision or moved on [by now]. They never cease to amaze me."

"Did it take longer than it should have? Probably so," said Henry F. Dagenais, a board representative for Long Reach. "It's gotten to be a monkey on our back. ... We want to do what's right for the residents, and we want to provide a place as safe as possible for children, and it's been a problem."

Most of the 10-member group have conceded that they made a hasty decision June 8 by unanimously voting to remove the playground -- a judgment that the board rescinded Wednesday after hearing from numerous angry residents.

But board members are defending the lengthy process.

"It's what had to happen because we have to do everything in open," O'Connor said. "It's required by law."

O'Connor said the issue could come up again Thursday at the board's next meeting and might be handed off to a board committee, which would recommend an action at a later date. O'Connor could not predict when the matter would be resolved.

In October, the board agreed to spend up to $20,000 to hire a consultant. That resulted in a Nov. 10 report from the National Program for Playground Safety, which concluded that "there is no compelling need to place a fence."

In December, the board ignored that recommendation and agreed that some type of barrier should be placed around the playground.

Columbia Association staff then prepared seven options for the site -- including leaving the playground as it is and putting a fence around almost the entire perimeter of the facility -- and presented them to the board in May.

Along with those recommendations, the CA staff deemed the tot lot safe and concluded that the toddler's death "was attributable to factors other than the design and location of the tot lot," according to a May 9 letter to the board from Chick Rhodehamel, CA's vice president for open space management.

It seemed as though the board was nearing closure on the matter after board member Patrick Von Schlag put forth a motion during the meeting May 11 to place a fence around the perimeter of the playground.

A vote on the motion was taken June 8, and the board voted down the proposal. And then, in a surprising move, the group immediately decided to close down the area and remove all the play equipment -- an option rarely discussed.

But the board quickly backpedaled after fielding scores of complaints from angry residents.

At Wednesday's meeting, which was attended by more than 100 people, dozens angrily told the board to leave the playground open.

O'Connor said he doesn't regret the way the process has played out because residents have gotten their chance to tell the board how they feel.

"When issues get this hot, they have to take the time to let the public have its full input," O'Connor said. "Whatever it takes to let the public have its full input, then I'm all for it. Us making a bad motion is what it took."

Terrasa said she was relieved that the board reversed its decision -- and she still wants a fence built around the playground -- but she said she's perplexed by the board's actions.

"I don't know how they decide one day it's so dangerous that they have to take it out right way, and then the next day they decide they don't have to move forward [on the matter]," she said.

Said Von Schlag: "There is no clear-cut solution, especially when people's emotions are getting involved and they're reacting to something that's tragic."

laura.cadiz@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tyrone Richardson contributed to this article.

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