This blog post was a collaboration between Jeremy Dommu and Michael Golibersuch. Jeremy wrote the first part providing the details pertaining to the tot lot replacement and history while Michael provided context to the CA board’s deliberation on this topic.
The Sixpence tot lot in Clemens Crossing has been boarded due to deteriorating wood supports since 2020. Now, after a 3 year saga, the CA Board of Directors has reversed their prior denial of funding and have approved the replacement of this playground with a new like-kind structure.
The recently approved replacement tot lot - the Twin Towers model from commercial playground manufacturer GameTime, Inc. - will be of similar size and character to the existing tot lot; though instead of wood, it will comprised of plastic-coated metal used in most modern commercial playground equipment.
The existing wooden tot lot is scheduled to be taken down during the week of October 17, 2022 and the replacement tot lot should be installed and open in Spring 2023. The benches, sandbox, swings, and monkey bars next to the tot lot structure will remain open both throughout the winter and after the main structure is replaced.
The Sixpence tot lot is one of 170 tot lots in Columbia maintained by the Columbia Association. Setting it apart from the other 169 tot lots, Sixpence has unusual features and a larger size that makes it appealing to older children. The original structure was designed by renowned landscape architect and professional planner Fred Jarvis, who helped plan Columbia. Since it was built in 1979, the Sixpence tot lot has been a beloved destination playground and highly-utilized neighborhood gathering place that has served children and families in Hickory Ridge for decades. Its unique features including a "wobbly bridge" and a "treehouse"-like fort.
In recent years, CA has moved to use more modern playground equipment made of metal and plastic as it replaces older wooden tot-lots. New commercial playground equipment lasts longer (lifetime of 20 to 30 years) and requires less maintenance. Furthermore, safety standards for pressure-treated lumber changed in the early/mid 2000s. The new safety standards have reduced the effectiveness of the lumber’s pest protection and, as a result, wooden play structures rot and need to be replaced sooner compared to structures built before the new standards. In fact, the Sixpence tot lot itself was last rebuilt in 2013 and it took only 7 years for the replacement pylons to rot. Prior to the decision to rebuild with a similar design to the original in 2013, there were questions raised regarding Sixpence's future somewhat like the recent debate. See "Future of Unique Hickory Ridge Tot Lot Uncertain", Columbia Patch, April 11, 2013.
The reason that the tot lot has remained boarded up and has not been replaced for nearly 3 years is largely due to lengthy deliberations and discussions by the Columbia Association Board of Directors.
A like-kind replacement of this tot lot, given its larger size, requires additional funding than a typical tot lot replacement necessitating budget approval from the CA Board of Directors. A typical tot lot replacement costs ~$70,000 for a structure fit for 2-5 year old children, while the Twin Tower design cost is ~$165,000. During the FY23 budget discussions held in early 2022, the Columbia Association staff recommended that the CA Board reallocate a portion of capital funding that had previously been earmarked for a future park to be built on CA land adjacent to the Hickory Ridge Village Center to instead be used to cover the excess costs needed for the Twin Towers design.
This reallocation was supported by the FY22 Hickory Ridge Community Association (HRCA) Board and FY22 Hickory Ridge CA representative Jessamine Duvall, who lead the advocacy campaigns around this tot lot replacement in both 2013 and 2021-22. Residents, as well as Hickory Ridge Village Manager Laura Mayton, testified in favor of the the reallocation of funding for the construction of the Twin Towers tot. Additionally, letters and emails from residents, community advocacy from the Facebook group Save the Sixpence Tot Lot and survey results from a community survey overwhelmingly supported the Twin Tower design as a replacement option.
Nonetheless, the FY22 CA Board of Directors denied the reallocation of capital funds in a 6-4 vote during their February 24, 2022 CA meeting leaving the tot lot's future in limbo. (Jessamine Duvall [HR], Tina Horn [WL], Ashley Vaughan [HC], Andy Stack [OB] voted yes; Ginny Thomas [OM], Eric Greenberg [RH], Dick Boulton [DS], Shari Zaret [KC], Lin Eagan [TC], and Janet Evans [LR] voted no). See February 24, 2022 CA meeting video, timestamp 1:19.
The FY23 Board of Directors of the HRCA (full disclosure: I, Jeremy Dommu, am a member of this Board) and new FY23 Hickory Ridge CA Board representative Brian England continued advocating for a solution to replace the Sixpence tot lot with a like-kind structure. Our board advocated for CA to either (a) reverse the prior decision and fund the Twin Tower play structure or (b) consider a like-kind replacement wood structure. Hickory Ridge Boardmember James Blackwood researched, identified, and advocated for a commercial play structures made of wood from play-ground company Bears Playground that would be within the budget of a typical tot lot replacement . He suggested that capping the top of wood pylons with a plastic cap could help prevent rot and increase its life.
After lengthy discussions during both of September's CA Board meetings, the CA Board voted 8-1 to reallocate funding for the replacement of the Sixpence tot lot with the Twin Towers design during the September 22, 2022 Columbia Association Board of Directors meeting (Agenda | Packet | Video) in an 8-1 vote. (Bill Santos [WL], Alan Klein [HC], Andy Stack [OB], Ginny Thomas [OM], Eric Greenberg [RH], Dick Boulton [DS], Janet Evans [LR], Kevin Fitzgerald (TC) voted yes; Shari Zaret [KC] voted no, Brian England [HR] was not present).
Context of CA Board Deliberations
While the CA Board may have eventually settled on the right decision, the path to reach the decision showcased their dysfunction. The decision to provide a like-kind replacement for the Sixpence playground is certainly of high interest to people who utilize it, however, in the context of CA as a whole, this is a minor decision regarding 1 of 170 tot lots that replacement requires a one-time investment that is a small fraction of CA's yearly budget of over $70,000,000.
The CA Board spent an inordinate amount of their time debating this relatively minimal investment in one single tot lot. The CA Board does not (nor should they) insert themselves similarly into design decisions of far more expensive individual assets (gym’s, pools, etc).
An exact figure is difficult to calculate but this single, relatively unimportant issue consumed as much as 5% of the CA Board’s total meeting time in calendar year 2022. Additionally, it consumed potentially one third of the discussion for the fiscal year’s budget despite representing a tiny fraction of a single year’s expenses. In the end, the board’s discussion contributed nothing to the decision because they ultimately reversed their initial rejection of the playground and approved the exact course of action the CA staff and HRCA initially recommended. The only community impact of the board’s lengthy deliberation was to delay the installation of the playground by an entire year.
Several CA Board members (Dick Boulton, Ginny Thomas, Eric Greenberg and Janet Evans) switched from opposing funding for the Twin Towers design in February to supporting it in September. It is unclear what led to that change but, for at least some board members, this change was at least partially driven by petty personal conflicts between board members. As Joan Lancos (a former CA Board member and active member of the community) testified during the CA Board’s September work session, one CA Board member specifically indicated to her and others that he voted against the project because he didn't like the CA Board member from Hickory Ridge, Jessamine Duvall. In April 2022, Ms. Duvall lost her re-election bid to Brian England who, compared to Ms. Duvall, has an observably friendlier relationship with Mr. Boulton, Ms. Thomas, and Mr. Greenberg.
The issues described above are not unique to the Six Pence tot lot debate but are instead indicative of broader dysfunction of the CA Board of Directors. The CA Board of Directors is made up of ten members and the board’s overall dynamic does not represent each individual. However, as a group, spending inordinate amounts of time reacting to and debating relatively minor issues, disregarding sound advice from the staff, and decision-making based on personal grievances is typical for the current board of directors; meanwhile proactive thinking about CA’s future and strategic issues do not receive the attention they deserve.