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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.

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."

BigDan September 18, 2012 at 02:08 PM
What a great driving school! Teaching hit and run techniques! So does this Douglas company also own the WSSC building and the parking lot that runs along 41st (across from the Top of the Park Apartments)? If so why do they prohibit apartment users and other locals from parking there but allow Student Driving lessons? Or do they not allow Student Driving lessons and this is simply a failing of the Hyattsville Police Department? Douglas seems to not care about the property (like the city who's main focus is the Arts Ghetto along Rt 1). I bet Douglas didn't even know about the use of their lot. Seems like HPD needs to enforce No Tresspassing laws..
M Park September 18, 2012 at 04:55 PM
The driving school's insurance should cover the damage. No one died. No one will die. Mute issue.
s September 18, 2012 at 05:02 PM
I'd rather not pay to have police to patrol the use of private land. It’s the Douglas Company problem.
Kristina Iverson September 18, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Children who play at the playground, especially at the swings, or adults at the tennis court could be hurt if one of these "student drivers" operating on this private lot crashes through. That is a huge liability- not only for the property owner, but also because this is adjacent to a public park.
M Park September 18, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Children could die anywhere, anytime. I took driving school there and I didn't hit anyone and neither did whoever hit the fence. Fences get hit often. The kids don't even play right on the other side of the fence. Get the insurance of the driving school to cover the damage, put up those concrete Jersey barriers and call it day. There are way bigger things to worry about. Not a huge liability at all.
Jim Groves September 18, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Good for you M Park. Too bad you didn't go to common sense school. You have a wire fence as the only protection to a playground from drivers who do not have a license and could be their first or second time in a car and you don't think it's a problem? The fact that someone DID CRASH THROUGH THE FENCE doesn't change your mind at all? Seriously? I'm not fan of Council Member Hunts views on many issues around Hyattsville but I'm with him 100% on this one. Until there are jersey walls or something else erected as a more permanent barrier, the police should ticket anyone using parking lot for driver training. They only need to do it for about 1 month. The word will get out and it will stop.
J.W. Hampton September 18, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Unfortunately Jim the police are very limited in what can be charged on private property, and merely driving on it isn't one of those things. Now, if Doug Jemal were to enter into an agreement with the PD making the officers agents of the property, which would include proper signage warning would be illegal users of the property that they would be trespassing, then an officer observing this could charge the individual(s) with a misdemeanor. Now having said that, I think the agreement that I brokered with Doug Jemal while I was Code Director, which was to have the entrances to the lot secured with chains (as they used to be) and provide the City with a key the lot, would work to keep most of the driving schools out of the lot.
susie September 18, 2012 at 08:31 PM
As a homeowner living near Magruder Park, I've withstood noise from the lot for years. I have tried to get Douglas Development to take responsibility for the lot, to no avail. I'm pleased the city is considering action. But it must happen NOW. No trespassing signs must be posted around the lot and entrances blocked. DD should allow the police to deal with trespassers.
Corey Somers September 18, 2012 at 09:22 PM
Where are they supposed to practice....Route 1?
Corey Somers September 18, 2012 at 09:40 PM
This is a PRIVATELY owned lot and he can let anyone drive in his lot. You and Hunt have no business telling him what he can do with his lot.
Scurvy September 19, 2012 at 12:48 PM
The people who drive there are not usually licensed driving schools. It is usually more likely a parent our spouse teaching a family member how to drive. The City wants to keep the parking lot available for parking during parades and other events held in Magruder Park. It also serves as overflow parking for the Top of the Park Apartments which gets the traffic off the overcrowded streets. The lot was once locked, but people kept cutting the lock or running over the gate posts. I assume the City just stopped trying to get it fixed and just let it remain open. The PD uses it for squad-to-squad meetings. The City also used the lot a few years ago for temporary staging of the Snowmeggedon products.
Chris Currie September 19, 2012 at 08:55 PM
The best -- and most permanent -- solution to this problem would be for the City to condemn the parking lot and incorporate it into Magruder Park. The lot is not required for any use allowable by zoning for the WSSC property; other would-be developers offered to donate it to the City. Jemal himself was planning to give it to DeMatha for a football practice facility as part of a deal a County Council member in exchange for the Councilman's vote on another development. (The City objected and the football field went elsewhere.) Instead of this internecine bickering, why doesn't this Council show some historic leadership and bring this key asset into the public domain?
Emil Farkwarp September 20, 2012 at 04:01 PM
You're right! If this lot is blocked off student drivers will have no other place to practice. There just aren't any other quiet parking lots anywhere in the world.
Emil Farkwarp September 20, 2012 at 04:05 PM
If the cops KNOW of a place that is frequently the target of crime (private or not) they should patrol, no? Police monitor the use of private land, property, and equipment all the time, and we thank their uniony goodness for it.
Emil Farkwarp September 20, 2012 at 04:12 PM
A roughly 50cm by 50cm trench the length of the fence would keep cars out and cost nearly nothing.

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