Columbia Association staff members weren't sure that fencing the playground at Lake Elkhorn would prevent drownings like one there Sept. 2.

Likewise, some of Columbia's elected officials were dubious about the proposal pushed by Columbia parents after the death of 23-month-old Alex Ferrera of Laurel.

But for others who attended a meeting Monday night at CA headquarters, the need for the fence was clear. They recounted their trauma since "Baby Alex" slipped away from his day-care provider and drowned in the man-made lake along Cradlerock Way.

"I wake up in the middle of the night. My son wakes up in the middle of the night," said Aaron Kush of Columbia, a Secret Service agent who was there with his 2-year-old son and tried unsuccessfully to revive Alex.

"I've not been more devastated than I am at this moment," said Kush, urging the board to take immediate action.

Susan Defibaugh of Columbia, a mother of two who was there that day, complained that most of her e-mails to Columbia staff members and elected officials have gone unanswered.

"I feel like we're taking this way too lightly," Defibaugh said. "I had no idea this safety measure would receive such resistance from CA staff."

CA is a homeowners association that serves the more than 97,000 residents of Columbia, providing such amenities as bike paths, swimming pools, golf courses and playgrounds, including the one at Elkhorn.

In a memo to the board, Chick Rhodehamel, vice president of open space management for CA, cited the downside of fencing, including creating a "false sense of security" and a precedent for dozens of other Columbia playgrounds. He said erecting a fence "may alter existing legal liabilities." He estimated that it would cost $11,000 to fence the playground, compared with about $26,000 to remove the entire playground. The estimated cost of relocating the equipment to another site is $90,000, he said.

Rhodehamel recommended that an expert from the National Playground Safety Institute be consulted to study all 169 tot lots in Columbia and develop guidelines.

Jennifer Terrasa, a Columbia parent who started a petition drive to have the Lake Elkhorn playground fenced, said that step was unnecessary.

"I don't really think an expert is needed to determine whether this playground is unsafe. It's unsafe," Terrasa said, adding that she had been contacted by more than 200 people supporting a fence there.

Patrick von Schlag, who represents the Village of River Hill on the Columbia Council and board of directors, disagreed. "I know people feel very strongly a fence would make them feel safe. I don't see any evidence that is actually true," he said.

"My concern is we have to get it right, and the quick emotional decision isn't always the right decision," said Miles Coffman, who represents the Village of Hickory Ridge. "Let's get some empirical data."

Other board members called for a quick decision.

"We can kill it by arguing about it forever," said Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search.

Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake said CA routinely responds when constituents ask for more towels at Columbia gyms or improved golf greens and swimming pools. Spending money for a fence shouldn't be a problem, he said.

"We have heard in no uncertain terms that what the folks who use Lake Elkhorn want is a fence," Feldmark said.

Board members decided staff members could spend as much as $50,000 to quickly hire a consultant about the Lake Elkhorn playground. They directed the staff members to begin a long-range study of all Columbia playgrounds.