Greater Greater Washington

A fence won't keep crime out of Burtonsville neighborhood

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.


A sign announcing the proposed fence was vandalized. Photo by the author.

Located in the Briggs Chaney area east of Columbia Pike and north of the Intercounty Connector, 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.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

Comments

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Yeay! To keep criminals out, they fence themselves in! Long live freedom!

by Jasper on Sep 4, 2012 10:42 am • linkreport

Here is a clear instance where we need to be firm that walking (cycling too) is a mode of transportation and accomodations have to be made to meet these. Forcing people to walk such a long distance isn't in the spirit of the law. Certainly the issues can be mitigated like Dan suggested. It's preposterous to say that one community can have direct access to a street and another cannot.

by drumz on Sep 4, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

If you don't want your neighbors to behave like criminals, treating them like prisoners is not going to help

by Dave Murphy on Sep 4, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

A solid example of how culs-de-sac and a lack of a grid make places less safe and "liveable" in the long run.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 4, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

The FBI reports that the vast majority of burglaries (and other crimes?) happen within a quarter mile of where the perp. lives. If this neighborhood is having a crime problem they should look inside their own community.

by Tina on Sep 4, 2012 11:45 am • linkreport

I am not clearly understanding this, but is the proposed solution to force the landowners to let people cross their private property? How is this possible? Does this mean I can be forced to have a public easement across my yard to give someone a shortcut to a Metro bus in the name of convenience?

Which of the advocates for this would allow it on their property. The real possibility that increased foot traffic in my yard will help deter crime doesn't mean you should force me to put a sidewalk in for public use.

by LeeinDC on Sep 4, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

@LeeinDC

Look at the maps, the Greencastle Lakes "private property" that people are "trespassing" across to get to the bus stop is 60 feet of grass between the back of property not owned by Greencastle Lakes and a major street. It's not anyone's yard.

If they do build this fence all the way around then expect about a week before somebody comes along with bolt cutters to open up a nice big hole so people can go back to actually using the bus stop.

by MLD on Sep 4, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

It's land that's owned by the HOA that is the issue. I could understand if it was someone's yard but since HOA's already have nebulous ability to dictate what people do on their private property (things like paint color and fence types) I don't have a problem thinking of a way that they could open it up.

by drumz on Sep 4, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport

How long has the public been crossing this strip to get to that bus stop? If more than 20 years, wouldn't there already be a prescriptive public easment? Green v WSSC, 269 A.2d 815?

by Jim T on Sep 4, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

So it's like Potomac Gardens in reverse. Yes, I'm sure this will work wonderfully....

by MM on Sep 4, 2012 2:09 pm • linkreport

Putting up a fence that's not on anyone's personal land sickens me. The shortest walk to the Metro from my condo involves crossing a 10-foot strip of land that is owned by a neighboring community association. The 10-foot strip is not in anyone's yard.

One day when I was crossing that 10-foot strip, a lady came out of one of the townhouses in that community association and screamed at me, calling me names, berated me, screamed "What kind of person are you?!?!" and ranted about how much money it costs to mow that 10-foot strip.

I'm lucky that there is another place I can cut through on the next street that is unambiguously public property, owned by WMATA and MD-SHA. The neighbors on that street wave at me. No one there fears a 30-something guy in a tie and a fedora on the way to work. I've even become friends with one family because they saw me wearing a DC United jersey on a weekend so we bonded over our soccer fandom.

While I am lucky that I live in Silver Spring where there is a street grid, my experience causes me to sympathize with the folks who cut through ambiguous community association property to get to transit. It's not the same as walking through someone's yard, legally or ethically, regardless of what the blustery lady screamed at me.

Good on Parks and Planning for looking out for transit users. Good on Dan Reed for pointing out the need for more eyes on the street.

by Cavan on Sep 4, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

I don't see a problem at all with the community building a fence since it's totally within their rights, not to mention resident safety is a very important issue. They could just leave a gap for access to Ballinger Dr. for residents who take the bus.

I totally understand where the Greencastle residents are coming from, and these types of situations aren't uncommon in Montgomery thanks to county's insistence on importing priced-out transplants from Wards 5-8 into McMansion communities with their MPDU requirements, all the while assuming that there won't be a change in crime.

by TBD on Sep 5, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

@TBD

It is within their rights to build a fence, but as I wrote, it probably won't do anything. It's also worth noting that this isn't a "McMansion community" - Greencastle Lakes is mostly townhouses, and a quick search on HomesDatabase reveals they're selling for under $200k, which is comparable to townhouses on Castle Boulevard.

by dan reed! on Sep 5, 2012 3:09 pm • linkreport

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