Fence sought to discourage crime

Woods dividing neighborhoods offer escape path, hideout

May 27, 2007|By Andrew Schaefer | Andrew Schaefer,sun reporter

Mark Franz first became convinced that the woods outside his Edgewood house were a problem 14 years ago.

His wife was mugged outside their home in the Harford Square neighborhood in November 1993, less than a year after the family moved there, Franz said.

He said he chased the assailant, who ran into the woods separating Harford Square from neighboring Windsor Valley (then known as Meadowood) and escaped.

"It's really like a twilight zone," Franz said of the woods, which lie across the street from the back of his house.

The woods have long served as a hiding spot or escape route for criminals fleeing police, said Cpl. Tom Gamble, supervisor of the Harford County Sheriff's Department's gang suppression unit. He said drug trafficking, much of it gang-related, is the main problem in Windsor Valley.

On Jan. 1, 20-year-old Walter Antonio Overton was shot and killed while hanging out with friends outside a townhouse in the 400 block of Meadowood Drive in Windsor Valley.

One solution Franz and other residents have been advocating for years is for the county government to erect a fence between the community and the woods. They've also proposed extending an existing fence on the Windsor Valley side of the woods.

Despite support from County Council member Dion Guthrie, whose district includes the neighborhood, no fence has been erected.

Serious crime in the community has prompted action in the past.

Derald Guess, a cabdriver who lived in Harford Square, was killed in an apparent gang initiation rite in December 2004. The perpetrators entered the neighborhood from the woods and fled through them back to Windsor Valley, where police arrested them. Two men were later sentenced for the crime.

After the killing, the county Parks and Recreation Department, which owns the property, cleared all growth under 6 feet tall in the woods and stepped up cleaning efforts. Before the cutting, Gamble said, the woods were dense and difficult to see through.

The cutting made it harder to hide in the woods, but Gamble said foot traffic between the two communities continues. Criminals fleeing into Windsor Valley through the woods often end up hiding from police in friends' homes, he said.

The Army gave the woods to the county in 1976 as surplus land from Aberdeen Proving Ground, said Joseph E. Pfaff, director of the Parks and Recreation Department.

The homeowners association has 1,500 feet of 10-foot-high chain link fence donated by fencing company Master Halco. But Franz, who is operations manager of the homeowners association, said the association can't afford the estimated $80,000 cost of putting it up.

He said he arranged the donation with the goal of giving the fence to the county in exchange for help erecting it and maintaining it. But the county wants the association to handle those responsibilities.

The county government "is not going to put a fence up for them," said Roxanne Lynch, director of community relations for the county government. "We don't feel it's right to keep one set of people in and another out."

A community meeting last month among the concerned parties - including representatives from Windsor Valley, the sheriff's office, Parks and Recreation and Guthrie - ended in an impasse, Franz said.

A fence would help reduce traffic between the communities but wouldn't be an ultimate solution to any problems, Gamble said.

"Even if you fence off an area, residents will find a way around it," he said. "In a lot of cases it's just the residents who don't like having to walk all the way around the community."

Residents thwarted a similar fence separating the nearby Sunrise Condominiums from the Seven Oaks community by cutting holes in it or placing tree limbs against it so that they can easily climb over, Gamble said.

"It'll make it harder, but as far as completely eliminating [foot traffic], it won't happen," he said.

Gamble said Windsor Valley has taken several measures to improve security, including installing video cameras and upgrading the community's lighting. He said management has been trying to rid Windsor Valley of gang members.

andrew.schaefer@baltsun.com

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