BY PAULA MINAERT — Swinging metal gates now barricade the drivers’ entrances to the former WSSC parking lot on 40th Avenue, which abuts Magruder Park. Signs on the gates warn: “This lot is closed to vehicular traffic except with specific written owner authorization.”
These were put up in late September by property owner Douglas Development at the request of the city of Hyattsville, and the company has hired a towing company to tow any car that drives over the grass to park illegally.
Different takes on the fence
A great deal of controversy preceded that action, including angry postings to the HOPE listserv and acrimonious exchanges in city council chambers.
It goes back to January 3, when, according to city Community Services Director Abby Sandel, a woman practicing driving went through the tall chain-link fence that separates the lot from the park and bounced off the fence surrounding the park’s tennis court.
Then, in late August, a section of the fence was bent again, also apparently by a car.
Tim Hunt, councilmember for Ward 3, was concerned about the danger to children playing close to the fence. So he called Acting City Administrator Elaine Stookey. That was when, in his view, things went wrong.
“I was told the owner had 30 days to fix the fence, and it was made clear to me that the city had no intention of [further] contacting Douglas Development,” Hunt said.
So Hunt e-mailed company executives directly to express his concern. And that was when, in the view of Mayor Marc Tartaro, things went wrong. Hunt says he made it clear in his communication that he was acting as a private citizen. Tartaro disagrees.
“Mr. Hunt signed it as a council member and used his city email. Douglas Development thought he was doing it on behalf of the city.”
So Tartaro sent his own letter to Douglas Development. “[My] intent was to inform the property owner that Hunt was not speaking on behalf of the city. We wanted to reassure them they weren’t doing anything wrong.”
Things escalated. Hunt vehemently objected to Tartaro’s saying in his letter that the city has “only minimal concerns” about safety on the lot. Tartaro agreed that the letter could have articulated things differently.
“Criticism duly noted,” he said later in an interview. “I have my opinion and others have theirs. Their opinion is valid just as mine is valid. The job of the city is to look at all sides.”
The discussion continued at the September 17 council meeting and was contentious. Sandel presented a motion drawn up by staff to put up either bollards or a guard rail on one side of the fence, but not all councilmembers liked that solution.
A great deal more discussion ensued. Some councilmembers said the lot has traditionally been used by parents teaching their children to drive. Others expressed concern about commercial driving schools using it.
After several motions failed to pass, the council finally decided that it didn’t need one after all. A majority, with Hunt and Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5) dissenting, thought that its direction to city staff on how best to approach Douglas Development about securing the lot was clear enough without it.
Shani Warner (Ward 2) commented, “How complicated we can make simple things. I wish this hadn’t become contentious.”
Resident Jon Shelton, father of two young children, spoke at the meeting. Days later, he was still upset about the way the matter was handled.
“Mayor Tartaro clearly wanted to avoid—at any cost—even asking Douglas Development to manage a serious public safety concern on its property,” he wrote in an e-mail to the HL&T.
Tartaro said he understands why some people are upset. “I took both my children to the playground and they learned how to ride bikes in that lot.”
What actually goes on in the lot
Resident Therese Tirador taught two of her children to drive in the lot and says she never saw problems with that practice.
“Several cars were there and people always made room for other cars. It felt perfectly safe,” she said in an interview, speculating that the recent damage might have been caused by people hanging out there after dark.
“Late at night I’ve seen people drive around the lot who clearly are not learning to drive. It’s teenagers just goofing around, laughing, and it sounds like alcohol’s involved.”
Another resident, Kathrin Black, has a different complaint about the lot. She lives close to it and for the last two or three weekends, she said, she has heard motorcycles driving around in the lot.
“Every Saturday and Sunday for hours, the noise was constant and very loud. I called the police and several of my neighbors did, too.”
But after the police left, she said, the cyclists kept riding around and the noise continued. She’s glad the lot is blocked now because it’s much quieter.
Paul Millstein, spokesman for Douglas Development, said the company tries to be accommodating.
“The city comes to us from time to time for functions and we’re always amenable. We realize people use the lot. We offered to fence it completely a while ago, and were asked not to do it because a lot of people feel it’s an amenity to the neighborhood. There’s no perfect solution.”
Millstein said that anyone who wants to use the lot should come to them or to the city for permission. “Securing it and opening it on a controlled basis makes more sense.”