Accord on fate of tot lot elusive

Site where child drowned in dispute


The drowned boy's mother was anguished - and impatient.

For months, Columbia Association officials had gone back and forth on what to do about the playground where 23-month-old Alex Ferrera wandered away to his death in Lake Elkhorn, and still the lot was unfenced and open to children.

"Your beautiful lake took my son and swallowed him and took his breath away," an emotional Cathy Ferrera told the homeowner association's board of directors in May, at one of a seemingly endless series of meetings on the issue. "I am angry. Start doing something about your playground."

Yet nearly a year after the drowning, the lot remains open and unfenced. Community members remain divided over whether a fence would increase safety or simply offer parents a false sense of security. Options - including closing the lot altogether - have been debated, and a study on the feasibility of erecting a fence has been completed.

But a resolution remains elusive.

The Lake Elkhorn tot lot - owned and maintained by the CA, the homeowner's association that oversees all of Columbia's open spaces - is about 150 feet from the dock on the lake and about 45 feet from the sidewalk of a busy street.

On Sept. 2, Alex, who was with a licensed day care provider, wandered away from the playground and plunged into the 37-acre manmade lake. An off-duty Secret Service agent, who was at the lake with his 2-year-old son, found Alex in the water and pulled him out. Efforts to resuscitate the boy were unsuccessful.

Almost immediately, parents called for a review of safety measures at the playground, and the CA board responded, allocating up to $20,000 for a study and $30,000 for a fence, if needed.

But the study - a six-page report from the National Program for Playground Safety - found "no compelling need to place a fence" around the playground at Lake Elkhorn.

Angry parents denounced that finding, and the CA board, convinced that some barrier was needed, agreed to build a fence or landscape buffer. As recently as March, CA officials were predicting that construction would be completed in time for summer.

In the intervening months, however, the board has:

Reviewed seven design options, ranging from leaving the playground as it is to putting a fence around the entire perimeter.

Made a motion to approve the perimeter fencing plan after two board meetings of discussion.

Scrapped the fence plan entirely and voted unanimously to close the Lake Elkhorn tot lot and remove the play equipment.

Reversed itself once again and agreed to leave the lot open - and unfenced - after a meeting at which members were berated by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 angry parents and concerned residents.

The dispute has raised questions about the effectiveness of the board, which sets policy for the nearly 100,000-resident planned community.

"They dillydallied around too much," said Alex Hekimian, president and co-founder of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a watchdog group. "They should have immediately tried to find out what agencies in other parts of the state and country deal with this kind of issue because [CA] is not the only agency that has playgrounds. Instead of doing that, they tried to reinvent the wheel."

Board members defend their methodical approach, even as they recognize that the community is getting impatient.

"People expect very crisp decision-making from their public officials on matters that are complex," said Phil Marcus, the CA board's vice chairman. "When they get crisp decisions, sometimes it's not the best one."

Irwin Morris, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, said it is not uncommon for policymakers to take time in reaching a decision, and a matter can continue to be revisited.

"People are trying to make the right decision, and if it's not obvious what is right, they agonize over what is the right thing to do," Morris said. "You are not making a decision in isolation - if something else happens like another such incident would arise, then people would expect the same action for that."

Now residents of Columbia's Owen Brown village, where the lot is located, are supposed to consider options for the tot lot and make a recommendation to the board. And at some point - no date has been set - the CA board once again will take up the issue.

"They can make a presentation, and we will go from there, but there is no guarantee that something will happen," said Tom O'Connor, the CA board chairman.

The process has revealed divisions in the community.

Susan Defibaugh, a mother of two boys ages 2 and 7, lives near the playground and has been advocating for a fence since Alex's drowning.

"I think it would be like common sense to put up a fence or barrier after a baby died there," she said.

Defibaugh said she still takes her sons to the playground and finds herself watching other children, too.

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