Tuesday, September 4, 2012

a fence won't make greencastle lakes safer

Vandalized 'New Fence' Sign
A sign in Greencastle Lakes announcing the proposed fence was vandalized.
To discourage crime and loitering, residents of Greencastle Lakes in Burtonsville want to build a mile-long fence around their subdivision. However, neighboring communities say it'll cut them off from public transit, and the fence may not really make the area any safer.

Located on Greencastle Road east of Columbia Pike, Greencastle Lakes was built in the early 1980's on the former Silver Spring Golf & Country Club. The sprawling planned community has many private amenities, including a network of trails, a clubhouse and a pool. It's shaped like a horseshoe, and in the middle is Castle Boulevard, a nearly mile-long cul-de-sac lined with older apartment and townhouse complexes that's gained a reputation for crime. The two communities are divided by Ballinger Drive, a public street where the popular Metrobus Z line runs, and a roughly 60-foot-wide strip of land owned by the Greencastle Lakes Homeowners Association.

Two years ago, the HOA began building a tall iron security fence on that strip of land, but construction stopped after a Montgomery County code inspector found they didn't have the proper permits. They're now seeking approval from the Planning Board, which will review the matter on September 13. This report assembled by Planning Department staff includes letters from over a hundred residents from Greencastle Lakes and Ventura, a townhouse community immediately across Ballinger.
Proposed Greencastle Lakes Fence
Map of the proposed fence (in red) and gate (in yellow) from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
Greencastle Lakes residents say they're just trying to replace and extend an existing chain-link fence that dates to the neighborhood's country club days, but also hope it will keep people out. They wrote of cars being broken into, "condoms, cigarette butts and drug paraphernalia" littering the streets, and teenagers smoking pot and having sex in the common areas. Many neighbors blamed Castle Boulevard.

"We have become victim to the crime from outside the community," wrote Marvin Kerdeman of Aldora Circle. "We pay a high homeowners fee to have the parking lot and trails available for our use, not for neighboring communities to trespass upon," wrote Julie and Ken Mackel, who added, "To access the metro [bus] stop, they still need to cross private land. Just because it is a convenient short-cut, it is still trespassing and should not be allowed to continue."

Ventura residents, meanwhile, say the fence would deny them access to the bus stops and Edgewood Park, a county park. The only other way to reach Ballinger Drive without crossing private property, they say, is a nearly 2-mile walk. "These facilities are public goods which we also contributed to and maintained with our paid taxes," wrote Dinah Teinor, also of Castle Terrace.

Some say it's just another sign of the discord between the two neighborhoods. "This has been an ongoing issue between both of our developments for several years. Something like the McCoy's and Hatfield's," wrote Ventura resident Sabrina Christmas.
Fence Posts Along Ballinger Drive
Construction on the fence began in 2010 and stopped due to a lack of permits.
In response, county planners have proposed that Greencastle Lakes build a gate and a sidewalk so Ventura residents could walk to a bus stop on Ballinger Drive. "The construction of a continuous fence without a pedestrian access does not support the existing walkable and sustainable character of the neighborhood, and will have a negative impact on the surrounding communities," the report says.

A fence may make some residents feel better, but if they really want to be safer, they should reach out to their neighbors on the Boulevard. Looking all of the letters, it's clear that safety is a big concern for everyone. After all, the fear of crime in Briggs Chaney is so strong that kids aren't allowed to play outside.

However, a safe space is a well-used space. Ventura residents may be "trespassing" on Greencastle Lakes' property to catch the bus or walk to the park, but their presence alone is a natural crime deterrent. Providing more foot connections between neighborhoods will build on the county's recent pedestrian safety improvements along Castle Boulevard and get more people walking, providing more "eyes on the street."
Midpoint Path
Encouraging more people to use the walking paths in Greencastle Lakes could be a crime deterrent. Photo by Caps Fan 4 Life on Flickr.
County planners decided where to put a gate in the proposed fence based on an existing desire path made by people walking to the bus stop. There are other desire paths in the neighborhood and in Briggs Chaney as a whole, and it may be worth seeing which ones could be formalized.

Residents should also be encouraged to use their common areas. Like other neighborhoods in Briggs Chaney, Greencastle Lakes also has lots of awkward, unused common areas, which look great but can invite crime if they aren't well-programmed. The homeowners' association took out benches in one common area to discourage loitering, but it also prevents residents from using them for legitimate purposes, which in turn encourages more loitering. It's time to put those benches back, and maybe even some tot lots.

Finally, Greencastle Lakes and Ventura should work together to fight the causes of crime in their community. For instance, they could organize a joint neighborhood watch or volunteer in the local schools. These may require more time and effort than simply erecting a fence, but they'll do far more to create a safer community.

This isn't the first time that a Montgomery County neighborhood has used a fence to seal themselves off from perceived "undesirables," but it should be the last. Good fences may make good neighbors, but real crime prevention also requires that neighbors work together.


Unknown said...

I used to live at Ashford at Woodlake a few years ago. The crime on Castle Blvd. is bad. IMHO, the fence should go up, and no access (sidewalks) need to be built. People can still get to the bus stops. It's not like there are squatter's rights to this property or something.

BabblingBehr said...

I'm sorry I'm late to this discussion. I just found it. I am a resident of GC and I must say, this reporting is so much better than my own HOA. I'm a huge fan of your blog. I however have to disagree with your view. I am in favor of the fence and I think it's naive to think we can just hold hands and solve the problem.

Here's a personal anecdote. One afternoon I was out running through the trails that you mention. One in particular wraps around a small lake. I have pulled several shopping carts, that are stolen from the grocery store on Briggs Chaney, from this lake and returned them to the store. So on this particular run, I found a newly christened shopping cart in the lake. I stepped into the mucky lake to pull it out. At that point though, I had just started my run and didn't want to deal with it so I left it just off the walkway. Well I continued my run and saw a group of teenagers walk over from the direction of Ventura. From a distance, I saw the teens happen upon the rescued cart. Without hesitation, they grabbed the cart, and with a head of steam, shoved it back into the pond.

Try to walk a mile in our shoes. It's just one of many anecdotes within the community that show the blatant disregard and respect for our community. They have lost their privileged of using our grounds. While I hope this can change, we cannot sit idly by. We have already invested in better lighting and we pay for a rent-a-cop service to patrol the streets. The fence is a deterrent because any would-be hooligans/criminals coming from Ventura would have to run the 2-miles to escape the scene and police could use the couple of entrances as choke-points.

As far as keeping the paths busy, our HOA has made the comment that much of the crime we have experienced takes place during weekdays and when people are at their jobs.

Finally, I take offense to your assertion that the GC community is trying to "seal themselves off from perceived 'undesirables,'" It's not "undesirable" people we're trying to keep out. We're trying to keep out undesirable behavior. This isn't a fight between two dueling neighborhoods as you suggest. These are the unavoidable effects of poor housing policy within Maryland mixed with a down economy. The biggest question to ask here is: As a county, how do we address the issues within Venture so that we can all be safer?

BabblingBehr said...

A bit more...

Again, I have to disagree with your "McCoy's and Hatfield's" analogy. That would be saying that this situation is tit-for-tat and an eye-for-an-eye. But really, this is a one-sided affair.

The GC complaints:
"condoms, cigarette butts and drug paraphernalia"
"teenagers smoking pot and having sex in the common areas"
"victim to crime from outside the community"
Break-ins (of which my neighbor was a victim)
Using our personal parking spaces and walking back to their community.
Stealing shopping carts and littering them everywhere.

The Ventura Complaints:
The fence would "deny them [convenient] access to the bus stops and Edgewood Park"

GC is doing what we have to do to protect ourselves. We have budgeted more than $63,000 for security rent-a-cop services and that doesn't include additional lighting. Again, we need to address the core issues within Ventura as a larger community and I'm sure GC would be willing to pitch in if called upon.

Dan Reed said...


Thanks for your kind words, and I'm glad we can have a civil discussion about this.

That said, why is it naïve to think that people can come together and fix the problem? A fence might provide a false sense of security, but as you pointed out, there are social issues within the larger community that, in my opinion, a fence won't do anything to solve. And this isn't just a problem with Ventura and Castle Boulevard, but Greencastle Lakes, too. I highly doubt that troublemakers are limited to the Boulevard, or that concerned upstanding citizens only live in Greencastle Lakes.

The real issue: why are kids acting out? Why does crime occur in this community? What are the root causes of that? Tackle those and you've made a better community for everyone. That's a job for the county AND for concerned citizens. Build a fence and you've made one HOA feel good about themselves, but the problems will still be there.