Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Residents near planned center urge crackdown on area crime

Homeowners ask county to address problems in neighborhood before work begins on White Oak facility

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Residents who live near a proposed recreation center in White Oak are concerned it could have a negative effect on the area if crime, traffic and safety issues are not addressed.

The Gatestone Homeowners Association met with county officials and police May 14 to discuss the effects of the recreation center on its nearby townhouse community. The center will be located at April and Stewart lanes.

‘‘We told [recreation center planners] from the beginning that we thought it would be a great idea and a benefit to our community,” resident Lisa Evans said. ‘‘But the question is, what is going to be the unintended effects on our group?”

Gatestone homeowners complained of existing problems with petty crimes, littering, vandalism and drug use resulting from foot traffic through their neighborhood to a bus stop at the corner of April and Stewart lanes.

Evans said adults and teens from nearby Montgomery Paint Branch and White Oak Towers apartments travel in the evening through a wooded area that separates the Gatestone homes on White Oak Vista and a smaller subdivision on Old Columbia Pike. Some who cut through leave trash along the way and commit petty crimes against other pedestrians, Evans said.

‘‘Our evening problem has been there for a long time,” said Montgomery County Police Lt. Robert Carter of the Third District, who addressed the homeowners briefly before the meeting.

Some residents wanted permission to build a fence around a stream that flows through the woods to limit foot traffic, but Chuck Crisostomo, assistant director of the Eastern Montgomery Services Center, said Gatestone residents would have to work with Park and Planning and local police, not recreation center planners, to alleviate the problem.

Most residents said the recreation center was a good idea and could benefit the community in the long run, but it could have a negative effect if concerns aren’t acknowledged.

‘‘There are a lot of young folks that deserve something like [the recreation center], the problem is the impact,” said Gatestone resident Kwayne Jennings, adding that the primary concern of residents was to ‘‘maintain our [property] value” and avoid ‘‘picking up an undue burden.”

Evans said Gatestone townhouses start at $425,000.

Suzan Maher, the Montgomery County Recreation Department’s East County manager, said the center won’t be a cure-all for local youth crime, but it can be a positive presence in the community.

‘‘No one is going to walk into a community center and say, ‘I’m going to lay down my colors because you have pingpong,’” she said. ‘‘Our staff [will try] to work with kids of all ages, middle and high school, but we need police presence.”

Construction for the estimated $24.3 million center is expected to begin in late 2009. The recreation center building will be 33,000 square feet accompanied by various outdoor fields and courts as well as 160 parking spaces. Of the 45-acre site, 10.5 acres will be used for development and the center was designed to serve up to 30,000 residents.

Gatestone residents were also worried traffic in the New Hampshire Avenue and Columbia Pike corridors would only worsen with a recreation center, to be located just over a mile north of the expanded campus of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA facilities will eventually employ about 7,700 people.

Jan Wilson, the project’s manager at the Department of Public Works and Transportation, said a traffic study of ‘‘the approach to the April Lane entrance of the project” will be conducted. Crisostomo said he is pushing the County Council for a comprehensive traffic study of the entire White Oak area.

While Gatestone residents were pleased that county officials addressed their concerns, some are looking for action.

‘‘I’m hoping they take into account what we say and actually do something,” resident J.P. Dinh said.

‘‘I want them to more than listen,” Jennings said.