22 Aug 2014
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Student Driver Fence Damage Roils Council

Contention normally reserved for controversial budget matters centers on drivers education schools' use of parking lot near Magruder Park.

Student Driver Fence Damage Roils Council

A debate about how to deal with student drivers damaging a fence which runs along Magruder Park left some members of Hyattsville's City Council at a loss as to how the issue became so contentious. 

"It always amazes me how we can complicate such simple things, and how contentious we can make things that we all essentially agree on," said Councilor Shani Warner (Ward 2) during debate on the issue. 

Fenced Off

A bit of a recap may be in order for the uninitiated. 

First, know that Magruder Park borders a large parking lot which once housed hundred of cars belonging to workers at the old Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission headquarters in southern Hyattsville. Just on the other side of the lot in Magruder Park sits a playground area popular with local families with young children. Separating the two areas is a tall chain-link fence which runs for about 200 yards.

Since WSSC moved out of the building, the lot has largely sat empty. Now owned by Douglas Development, the lot has become a haven for student drivers who can regularly be seen there practicing K-turns and parallel parking.  

Earlier this year, one of those student drivers jumped the curb bordering Magruder Park, traveled through a fence which lines the parking lot and impacted a second fence which surrounds the Magruder Park tennis courts. This incident alarmed some residents who heard about it, but was not widely known. 

Then, on Aug. 28, the fence was discovered severely damaged. Councilor Tim Hunt (Ward 3) learned of the damage and blamed the student drivers and demanded that the city do something about the issue. His main concern was safety the children who use the nearby playground. He feared that a car could come crashing over the curb, through the fence and into the playground. 

Fenced Up

Over the next two weeks, Hunt began a campaign to pressure city officials and property owners into decisively dealing with student drivers practicing at the WSSC lot. The highlight of that effort was likely public comment period at the Sep. 4 City Council meeting where Hunt, in an effort to drive home the severity of the issue, displayed a dented six foot tall metal fencepost which he said almost certainly came from the damaged fence. 

Hunt was critical of the city's efforts to deal with the issue, saying that they were hesitant to ask Douglas Development to close off the lot for fear of losing the use of the lot during city events at Magruder Park.

"I think we have a public safety issue," said Hunt. "The city either cares about it or it doesn't."

Hunt also contacted Douglas Development on his own by phone and email to register his concerns over the student drivers in the lot and asked them to prohibit student drivers from practicing in the lot. Last week, on Sept. 11, Hunt sent a letter to representatives from Douglas Development and subscribers of the HOPE email list. In the letter, Hunt urged the property owners to address the situation "before a tragedy occurs."

"I am also dismayed by the lack of response regarding this issue by Hyattsville's mayor and staff. To my knowledge, they have not contacted you on behalf of the city to express these concerns, though they have also known about them for at least as long as you have," said Hunt in the letter. " Perhaps they do not take the safety of Hyattsville's children seriously. Perhaps, as was stated to me, they are concerned with losing the ability to use the parking lot for city functions if they complain."

But city officials had been in contact with Douglas Development over the fence. 

Fenced In

Indeed, according to a timeline of events released by the city at last night's council meeting, it was city Street Supervisor Joe Buckholtz who first noticed and reported the damaged fence on Aug. 28. The next day, the city sent a warning notice to the property owners instructing them to repair the fence before Sept. 19. Over the next few weeks, city staff began considering options for how to prevent cars from crashing into Magruder Park. 

After meeting with engineers, city officials proposed during last night's council meeting that bollards or a wooden barrier be installed to stop cars from careening into the park.

Mayor Marc Tartaro also contacted Douglas Development. In a letter dated Sept. 7, one day after Hunt displayed the damaged fencepost to the city council, Tartaro wrote that the city has "minimal concerns regarding safety on the parking lot, and we do not believe there are any issues with the current practice of leaving the lot open and accessible. Specifically, we do not wish to see the lot chained."

Tartaro's letter, written without the knowledge of city council, angered Hunt.

"The safety of our children and their families is not negotiable," wrote Hunt in an email to city residents on the HOPE email list after he found out about Tartaro's letter. "The practice of driver training at the fence line needs to stop."

Now, that brings us (roughly) to last night. 

A discussion item brought before the council by Mayor Marc Tartaro outlined the city's response to the damaged fence. It also included a memo outlining options for a barrier to be built to prevent cars from running into Magruder Park. 

According to the memo, the city could try to place a guard rail on the parking lot side of the fence, owned by Douglas Development.

"While this is a great solution, it is not normal for a government entity to place improvements on private property," reads the memo, written by Elaine Stookey, city treasurer and acting city administrator. "In the short term, it would take some time to acquire easement. In the long term, we would have maintenance issues related to the construction."

Other options include placing a barrier on the city's side of the property line. The exact location, style and height of the barrier to be proposed depends on the precise lay of the property line, which needs to be surveyed.

After reviewing the options, the city council then spent half an hour  debating wether or not a motion was necessary to instruct staff to seek a mutually agreeable solution with Douglas Development over the repeated damage to the fence along the Magruder Park property line. City staff were eventually informally instructed to arrange a meeting with Douglas Development representatives to discuss concerns about lot usage and potential solutions.

Fenced Out

Hunt tried three times to push motions which laid out a specific plan of action for city officials to follow in their dealings with Douglas Development. Each time, his motions failed for lack of support either in seconds or in votes. 

"I don't think we should have a motion on this," said Warner, saying that Hunt was perhaps being a bit too cynical in his assessment of city staff's ability to work on the issue. 

"Part of the reason we get these silly situations, is that it goes back to a lack of trust," said Warner. "Mr. Hunt doesn't have the trust that what he wants to see happen will ultimately happen. My interpretation is that he feels as if he's going to be undermined or that there are other agendas going on."

"We all have to work on that trust issue, so we don't have people micromanaging or put into motions things that we think are silly," continued Warner.

"There is a lack of trust," responded Hunt. "Unfortunately, it's based on evidence."

The lack of support for Hunt's motions, at least in the eyes of Councilor Carlos Lizanne (Ward 4), was borne partly out of a weariness with the hyperbolic rhetoric often used in the city's most contentious debates. 

"If we have to exaggerate to make political points, we are in trouble," said Lizanne. "Our main work is to try to make solutions for this community."

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