Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Photography to be allowed in Ellsworth Drive development

Exceptions will still apply; some say policy breaches civil liberties

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A developer has relaxed its photography policy at a shopping center in downtown Silver Spring following complaints that residents were not allowed to take pictures on site.

The Peterson Cos., which leases Ellsworth Drive and the Silver Plaza development from the county, treated the street as private property and had a no-photography policy. That upset residents who said their rights were being compromised.

The debate on the issue began when a security guard stopped Silver Spring amateur photographer Chip Py about two weeks ago and told him he could not take photographs on the property. Py argued that the street should be treated like public property since about $450 million in public money has been invested into the redeveloped downtown along Ellsworth Drive.

The company relaxed its policy Thursday and will hold a photography contest starting July 4, complete with a sign welcoming photographers. Its new policy states that photography and videography are permitted as long as patrons are not harassed or photographed or filmed over their objection. The company reserves the right to modify the new policy.

‘‘It was a matter of being responsive to the photographers’ concerns,” said I.J. Hudson, communications director for Bethesda law firm Garson Claxton, which represents the Peterson Cos.

But some residents, including Py, are planning on protesting July 4, because they believe all First Amendment rights — the rights to organize and protest, for instance — should be granted on Ellsworth Drive.

The issue, Py said, is not about photography but about civil liberties. He is hoping the company will further modify its policy.

Hudson said Monday the company had no response to the residents’ protest.

Public-private partnerships are being initiated across the country and there needs to be a way to address civil liberties on those sites, especially since public money is involved in their development, Py said. He questioned where the public’s rights end and the corporation’s rights begin.

‘‘Basically, we don’t get our rights in public spaces from the Peterson Companies,” Py said. ‘‘We get them from the Constitution. And they are the freedom to campaign, distribute literature, assemble and petition.”

Hudson, however, said Peterson Cos. asked Silver Spring resident Adam Pagnucco, an activist with experience in union work and protest organizing, to come up with a solution that met the needs of residents as well as the company. ‘‘I think we were responsive,” Hudson said.

Pagnucco said photographers had legitimate concerns when Peterson’s old policy was in place. He said he got involved because he wanted to help Py and others like him. Pagnucco said he is pleased with the change.

‘‘I don’t think you could have gotten a better policy,” Pagnucco said. ‘‘They didn’t want to fight. They wanted to make a deal.”

But, he said, Peterson does consider the property to be private and does not want to concede all rights. The company did what it could to respond to residents’ concerns, Pagnucco said.

‘‘I do feel that the company negotiated in good faith and the new policy is very, very different than the old policy,” he said.