A D.C. Superior Court judge has ruled that the city violated its own regulations when it erected controversial suicide-prevention fences along the Calvert Street bridge -- the city's most notorious suicide site -- but said yesterday he would not order their removal while a court-ordered review is undertaken.
Judge Ronald Wertheim said the barriers may "very well prevent some suicides," but he said the city had acted illegally when it failed to solicit comments from citizens groups in the area or to submit plans for the eight-foot-high metal barriers to the local Historic Preservation Review Board.
Wertheim ordered the city yesterday to begin these two processes, following his finding Thursday that the city had violated the law.
Wertheim's order was in response to a suit filed by a coalition of citizens who complained that city officials had failed to give the affected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions the mandated 30 days notice or to follow proper procedures in making alterations to an officially designated historic landmark.
The citizens complained the barriers were unsightly, spoiling the panoramic view and the architectural integrity of the bridge, officially named the Duke Ellington Bridge, and would not prevent someone determined to jump from the bridge that spans 125 feet above Rock Creek Park. In the last eight years, nearly 40 persons have jumped to their deaths from the bridge and a nearby span on Connecticut Avenue NW.
Wertheim said yesterday that although he had not been asked to order the removal of the barriers at this time, he nonetheless noted that such an action would cost the city "some expense" and that it was up to the mayor to decide the barrier's fate once the review process had been completed.
A lawyer representing the citizens groups said yesterday the judge's order made him "confident that the democratic process finally was going to be enforced."
Christopher H. Hoge said the city's actions in the construction of the barrier followed a recent pattern of the city "making all these significant decisions and foisting them on the citizenry without giving appropriate notification." Hoge also noted that records show at least one person has jumped from the Ellington bridge since the fences were completed in January. The man survived, according to police.
The establishment of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions was considered an integral part of the Home Rule act and two other suits were recently filed in D.C. Superior Court charging that the city did not notify affected advisory commissions, including one suit by a group of citizens protesting the use of an abandoned Northeast police facility for an emergency jail. The other involves citizens groups protesting the construction of an office building on Wisconsin Avenue NW at the old Johnson's Flower Center site.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works said yesterday that the agency would comply with the judge's order. "When the department put up the railing we felt it was for a public good," said public information officer Tara Hamilton. "We hope that when we go through the additional reviews that will also be perceived to be that way."
Wertheim said yesterday that the city was required to get a permit for bridge alterations. His order represented the first successful litigation by citizens groups that have long opposed construction of the barrier.
Mayor Marion Barry ordered construction of the barriers resumed last December after three people died in jumps from the bridge in a 10-day period and several months after a federal judge dismissed last summer a lawsuit to block construction of the barriers.
Wertheim told the city it had 30 days to comply with his order, which he expects to write around April 3.