Accokeek residents who live within the boundaries of Piscataway Park are concerned that they have fallen through the jurisdictional cracks when it comes to reporting crime and safety concerns in the park.
The park, which straddles the border between Charles and Prince George’s counties along the Potomac River, is supposed to be closed at sunset. However, residents claim that the National Park Service, which oversees the park’s maintenance and operations, rarely locks the two gates that provide access to the waterfront.
As a result, residents are often awakened in the middle of the night by speeding cars, loud noises, and last week by fireworks that they say were large enough to be heard across the river in Virginia. The park is also poorly maintained, they say, with litter and overgrowth spoiling the experience of visitors and potentially posing a safety hazard.
The problem has become so acute that 11 residents and families, including several who live on Bryan Point Road and Wharf Road near the two gates, recently co-signed a letter calling on U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to take the issue up with the National Park Service.
“Private residents living within and just outside the park boundary request that you assist in holding the NPS accountable for closing the gates to its stewarded sites nightly, to prevent or mitigate trespassers from committing criminal and nefarious activities that endanger life and property,” the letter read. “NPS’s ‘24-hour, open door’ practice invites trespassers into the park that have in the past engaged in shootings, arson, drug use, vandalism, drunk driving, speeding, and littering, all within steps of federal historic sites and private property.”
“It’s a problem that’s been going on in Piscataway Park for some time,” said Sara Lilly, whose property backs up to the park near the Bryan Point Road gate. “There’s not been, [from] what I can see, any traction or movement by the park service to resolve this.”
One night in March 2017, Lilly was awakened by loud noises and saw the glow of a fire in the distance. Concerned, she called the park service’s emergency hotline but was told that it would take at least 50 minutes for a unit to respond. Lilly decided to drive into the park to see for herself and found a car completely engulfed in flames by the side of the gravel road, just a few feet from the tall trees that lined the path.
Lilly said she then called 911, and police and fire units arrived shortly thereafter. A few days later she contacted the park service’s community representative seeking details about what had happened, but the representative did not respond, Lilly said.
Cory Sanna, whose driveway is across the street and two doors down from one of the park entrances, said that one night last summer he called the police because he heard what sounded like a fight, with yelling and screaming.
“When I called the police, they said that they thought that that was [the responsibility of the] park service ... but they said they would still send a cruiser out to respond,” Sanna said.
“There is an ongoing issue of ‘who do you call,’” Sanna said. “If you call the police, they’re like, ‘Well, I’m not sure that’s us.’ Is it off the road and in the park? Is it on the paved road? Who’s going to claim responsibility for it?”
“We’re kind of forgotten about back here,” Sanna said.
A spokesperson for the Prince George’s County Police Department’s media relations office told the Maryland Independent that it would try to provide a comment on the jurisdictional question by press time.
According to Lilly, the park service’s community representative has told concerned residents that it does not have the resources to be able to close the gates every night.
Neither the park service’s community representative nor its office of communications responded to several requests for comment by press time.
Residents interviewed for this story said that their property had not been damaged or vandalized by after-hours interlopers, nor, to their knowledge, had any of their neighbors’ properties.
At the beginning of July, Van Hollen forwarded the residents’ letter to Elaine Hackett, the park service’s congressional liaison and requested that she look into their concerns. The Maryland Independent understands that there has been no response to the request, despite several follow-up calls by Van Hollen’s staff.
Residents say that their concerns extend beyond safety.
“The trash ... devalues the whole experience,” said resident Deborah Buelow. “It sends a bad message. It makes you look at the trash rather than the beauty around you.”
Buelow, who serves on the community’s beautification committee, added that she has seen park service personnel cleaning the park on occasion, but not frequently.
“I clean up trash in that park all the time,” Buelow said. “I’ve personally gone down there and picked up trash that I’ve seen repeatedly week after week after week.”
Piscataway Park is located across the Potomac from historic Mount Vernon and was established to help protect the view from George Washington’s home. In addition to the Moyaone Reserve community, the park is also home to the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Hard Bargain Farm and the National Colonial Farm.
Both of those organizations have their own staff to open and close gates and control access to their properties.
The National Park Service website says that the park is open until sunset. Signs at the Accokeek Creek and Farmington Landing gates say the park closes “at dark.”
Residents say the lack of attention being paid to the park and the confusion over who has jurisdiction over it contribute to a sense that the community is not being heard.
“The park service, and the county to a certain extent, doesn’t care,” said Sanna’s neighbor Cedric Welch. “That’s how it makes me feel.”
Lilly said that despite the ongoing frustrations, many residents remain sympathetic to the budget and staffing limitations faced by the park service and have even offered to open and close the gates themselves, provided they can get the park service’s approval.
“This is something that can be resolved, and we would like to be part of the solution,” Lilly said.