"It's the most piddling thing, two women scrappling over a couple of trees in a tiny park. It's unbelievable," said Elaine Dym, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area around the "tiny park" at 23rd and Q streets NW.
The nameless little triangle of trees and shrubs on the edge of Rock Creek Park by the Q Street (Buffalo) Bridge went unnoticed for almost a century. Then two years ago, a woman who lives in an apartment a block away began gathering petitions and writing the National Park Service to "open up the park to the public." She felt it was being usurped by the owner of the house next to the park.
Until recently, passersby might well have thought the park was a private garden. It was enclosed by dense shrubbery and had a gate that was frequently closed.
But because of the recent controversy, the Park Service has pruned back some of the shrubbery, removed the gate and put up three signs saying, "Please Preserve Your Park. Rock Creek Park." (Two of the signs mysteriously disappeared as soon as they were erected. The third sign, which went up several weeks ago, is set in concrete and fastened with bolts.)
Park Service officials admit the park has been used for decades as something of a private garden by the various owners of the adjacent house at 2238 Q St. NW. At the turn of the century, one resident even went so far as to start building a house on the little triangle of land. The federal government went to court to block construction, but not until a hole for the cellar already had been dug.
But Park Service officials also say that most of the owners of the adjacent house have cared for and improved the park at their own expense.
The present owner, Dee Morgan, has watered the garden regularly, tended the greenery and planted several azalea bushes in the park during the 10 years she has lived next to it.
And Morgan insists she has not usurped the public park as her own. "I've always said this was public, and I've never kept anyone out, although I have complained about bums sleeping there," she said. "I have watered the trees and bushes and the Park Service last year wrote a letter thanking me. Now I'm treated like a public enemy."
The controversy began when Annemarie Zoltek, who lives at 2501 Q. St. NW, sent the first of dozens of letters to Park Service, Department of Interior and District officials complaining that Morgan was using public park land as her private backyard.
Zoltek said Morgan and the previous owners of her house had made a private garden of the park and "tried to keep the public out. She (Morgan) lets her dogs and cats run free in the park, which is intimidating to the public. She sprays water on the benches, and she tries to keep it like a jungle."
Morgan said none of this is true and claimed that Zoltek has become obsessed with the park. "She's called me in the middle of the night, yells things at me in the street and lurks in the bushes to harangue people who come to sit" on the two benches and three chairs now in the little park, Morgan said.
"The Park Service cut things way back," Morgan said, but apparently not enough to suit Zoltek, who, she said, repeatedly "comes along and breaks off branches on the shrubbery to make it more open."
Park Service officials, caught in the crossfire between the two women, have attempted to be responsive to both, said Deputy Regional Director Robert Stanton.
Under the prodding of Zoltek, and with advice from Morgan, the Park Service drew up a development plan that includes rebuilding steps and a terrace, removing some of the plants and replacing them with others to make the park more open. Work already done on the $2,000 to $3,000 plan includes removing the gate, adding chairs and benches, posting the sign and pruning extensively.
The Park Service explored the idea of giving the park to the city, Stanton said, but "there was limited D.C. interest" in acquiring park land because the city has little money to maintain what parks it has.
The Park Service's development plan, amended several times already, generally met with approval from other neighbors and local ANCs, Stanton said. In a display of solicitude, which has resulted in the Park Service's spending hundreds of hours attempting to please both sides, Stanton said, "I personally presented the plan to Morgan and Zoltek. Mrs. Zoltek thought we hadn't gone far enough, and Ms. Morgan thought we'd gone too far."
ANC Commissioner Dym said most local residents in her ANC, 1D, "want the park let alone." But she admits that Zoltek, who lives across the Q Street Bridge in a different ANC, has gotten a number of her neighbors to sign petitions urging that the park be made even more open.
Morgan unwittingly inherited the park identity problem when she bought the house. Several previous owners apparently had an unwritten agreement with the Park Service that they could make improvements in the little triangle, for many years a cellar hole filled with trash and weeds.
Among the previous owners were psychic Jeane Dixon; John Logan, who long headed the National Cherry Blossom Festival Ball and was rewarded with cherry trees which he planted in the little park; and Violetta Mercer Marbury, whose sister Lucy Mercer had a long romance with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Marburys' daughter, Lucy Blundon of McLean, said recently that her mother had improved and cared for the neglected bit of Rock Creek Park beside their house.
"But mother never kept anyone out. She put flowers in it and ivy and we would occasionally sit there, but no more than anyone who lived next to a park," Blundon said. "It's very sad what's happening now to Dee Morgan."