A tiny red oak tree has taken root in the pothole on Renfrew Circle, a measure of both nature's gift for adaptation and Prince George's County's willingness to ignore years of pleas from residents who want their street back.
The hole began as a crack in the pavement of the quiet Fort Washington cul-de-sac near the Potomac River more than a decade ago. It swelled to sinkhole proportions last summer, after heavy construction trucks barreled over the thinly paved street to build a house.
The hole now measures 12 feet wide by 8 feet long, extending halfway across the blacktop. One recent morning, a UPS delivery truck trying to maneuver around it had to jounce over part of the fractured asphalt to get by.
"You've got the huge pools, the well-kept neighborhoods, people who get along -- and you have the pothole," said Jeannie Hager, 57, a retired elementary school teacher.
"That's the ugly of it!" her neighbor a few doors down, Grady Davis, 59, chimed in.
Until yesterday, years of requests for help had been futile. At times, the county said the construction company involved was responsible for at least part of the bill. Neighbors said that when county repair crews did come to patch the hole, they turned around and left, saying they didn't have the right equipment for a hole so enormous.
After fielding an inquiry yesterday from The Washington Post, the county's Public Works Department ordered a crew to fill the giant pothole this morning. Moreover, the department's director, Haitham A. Hijazi, asked his crews to repave the entire street by the end of the year.
"The long and the short of it is there will be a crew there tomorrow," Public Works spokeswoman Susan Hubbard said yesterday. "Whether it's our hole or somebody else's hole, that can be determined later."
Conditions in the hole have grown so ripe that the tree and grass have been able to grow. A tree growing in a pothole may be rare but is not impossible. Phyllis Wilson, an urban forester for Fairfax County, said a fallen acorn could land in a pothole and, with enough water, sunlight, dirt and support, grow into a tree in a matter of days.
"I've seen potholes all my life but never saw a tree growing in one," Wilson said. "It stops being a pothole and becomes a planter -- not a very good planter, I might add."
A tree in a pothole may be unusual, but crater-size holes are not. As development in the region continues to boom, construction-related damage has become more common. Montgomery County, for instance, has seen a spike in potholes and shoulder erosion.
In the northern Montgomery town of Clarksburg, where authorities are investigating hundreds of code violations in new houses, similar problems linger as roadways struggle to handle the pressure of the weighty trucks that rattle by.
"You have a large number of construction trucks that are traveling many older, almost rural roads," said Tom Pogue, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation. "We know that that's having an impact on those roads, and we're certainly having to pay more attention to maintenance of those roads."
With Prince George's saying it is poised to act in Fort Washington, what will become of the tree in the pothole?
"We just might have to go out and get that little tree and put it somewhere as a memento for this long time awaiting," said Karen Clink, 60, whose house sits directly in front of the hole. "It's kind of our little symbol of what we've been through."