In More Ways Than One, a Fence Divides Community
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Cheryl Watson was on her regular afternoon stroll with her daughter last summer when they found something new in their path: a fence.
The six-foot-high black metal barrier tipped with spikes stretched across the asphalt trail that had long connected Watson's Montgomery Village neighborhood with the neighborhood next door. Workers were still installing it, but enough was complete to change not just Watson's route but her very notion of community.
"This is against everything Montgomery Village stands for," said Watson, who for 18 years has lived in the sprawling development just north of Gaithersburg, a patchwork of self-governing neighborhoods connected by walking paths and shared recreation centers.
Her North Village neighborhood is a tree-lined complex of low-income and subsidized townhouses called Picton. Next door, the houses of East Village are a degree more affluent, many with two-car garages and decks. But for as long as Watson can remember, residents of Picton had used the paths to reach the bus stops and swimming pools on the far side of East Village.
She said she had never heard about the long history of complaints within East Village about loitering, vandalism and litter and certainly never expected the ultimate keep-out measure of a fence.
"We feel like we're surrounded by bars," she said.
Good fences make good neighborhoods, in some cases. But when a fence suddenly appears between two neighborhoods of a utopian planned community such as Montgomery Village, the uproar can be long and intense. Next month, the Montgomery County Circuit Court will take up the case of North Village v. East Village. It will be the latest clash in a year-long saga of litigation, regulation and widespread soul-searching over how a 1,600-foot fence with "No Trespassing" signs fits within a community founded on principles of walkability and the easy mixing of neighborhoods.
"This is sort of a first, cutting one community off from another," said Jim Kettler, president of Kettler Brothers Homes, the development company that began Montgomery Village 40 years ago. He succeeded his father, Clarence Kettler, an early advocate of the "New Town" movement that emphasized open green spaces and pedestrian mobility. "The whole path network was critical to the design. To date, they've pretty much kept the integrity of that system."
But much has changed since Montgomery Village was created in the mid-1960s. It is now a city of more than 40,000 near the major commuter artery of Interstate 270.
Its neighborhoods range from subsidized low-income apartment complexes to single-family houses in the near seven-figure range. They are governed by 10 elected residence associations, each enforcing strict decorative standards, from paint colors to grass height. An overarching Montgomery Village Foundation administers dozens of pools, recreation centers, parks and other common areas.
Given that growth, many residents of East Village say the ideals of open access have been trumped by the real-life hassles of litter, broken windows and frequent police visits they believe can be traced to the young residents of Picton.
"Open is great, but it doesn't always work," said Dick Ris, a 15-year East Village resident whose townhouse is adjacent to the Picton property line. He has friendly relations with some Picton residents, including Watson, he said.