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'Now we leave it to the legal system' | DC neighbors fight to save community playground

Talbert Terrace SE residents have spent decades to save only neighborhood playground

WASHINGTON — Neighbors in DC are fighting to save their playground from development. The Anacostia Home Owners Association has owned the plot of land where the playground sits for 46 years. They claim the land was unfairly sold by the DC government in a tax dispute, and the buyer is a developer with a history of legal problems. 

The plot of land was a place where once only white people were allowed. 

"We played here, sun up, sun down," Karen Hillard said.

Hillard, along with Michael Everett recalled one of the few places Black and Brown children could go and play without fear or worry.

"Whether it was baseball, kickball, double-dutch," recalled Everett. 

Years later, a mixed multi-generational community now comes together. 

C.J. Brandmeier is one of the newest neighbors of Talbert Terrace SE who's taken on this decades-old fight. 

"This has really been a relay race over 20 years," said Christopher Brandmeier. 

The Anacostia Homeowners and Residents' Association says the District government sold their historic land to a developer they claim cut corners and broke the law to buy the property.

Neighbors say this land is their racial reparations. According to a 1942 Covenant, the original landowner tried to ban Black people from building on the property. The residents sued and in 1977, the homeowners' association became the landowners.

"The taxation went from around a thousand to $2,000 per year, which is manageable for this community, to over $200,000 a year overnight," explained Brandmeier.

A deed shows the taxes spiked in 2014, soaring close to $322,000, an amount the community just couldn't pay. That was two years before the property was put up at a discount tax sale by the city government.

WUSA9 asked the DC Office of Tax and Revenue why the taxes increased so dramatically. We were told, the property's classification changed throughout the years from residential to commercial to vacant to finally vacant and blighted. And, that classification comes with higher taxes.

"I feel like it was a, not a setup, but it was just unfair," Hillard said.

Everrett claimed situations like this happen all the time. 

"It's not unique, okay," he said. "What is unique is the fact that neighbors caught it."

Despite catching it, they still couldn't pay the back taxes. So, in March 2016, Rupsha 2011 LLC bought the land for $29,000. The owner of that LLC is Mohammad Sikder. City records show Sikder's own property was up for sale that same day because he owed back taxes.

"Which violates one of the true principles of participating in the tax sales," said Brandmeier.

However, the Office of Tax and Revenue now tells WUSA9 that Sikder sold a property that he owed back taxes on for one dollar just two months before that tax sale. Sources tell WUSA9 the buyer of the one-dollar deal was Sikder's girlfriend.

WUSA9 tried contacting Sikder several times over the last two months through email and phone calls but never heard back.

In 2019, Sikder pleaded guilty in federal court to violating toxic lead laws and served two months in jail with two years of supervised release. In 2021, he and his eight companies were sued by the DC Attorney General for lead in more than 25 properties. 

The DC Office of Tax and Revenue said Sikder hasn't purchased any properties at tax sale since his legal troubles. But, he is still allowed to build.

"The developers never confronted us," Hillard said. "They just build, build."

According to Sikder's architectural designs, he plans to build 18 two-story units on the playground space and the acres that make up the wooded area.

"You can't put 18 units right here," Eugene Johnson said.

Neighbors say it's not hard to imagine what could go wrong if a developer builds on the Talbert Terrace playground site. In fact, all they have to do is look straight down the street at River East at Grandview where a dozen families were evacuated after they found massive cracks in walls and floors. It was later discovered that the foundation was shifting drastically.

"How do they stop the erosion," Eugene Johnson questioned.

The DC Department of Buildings told WUSA9 that the construction flaws were not noticed until homeowners lost everything and were forced out. The city now requires engineers and developers to report unsafe structural conditions immediately. 

The playground on Talbert Terrace sits on the same hill. Neighbors say it's land that is rapidly eroding and so do Skider's own engineers, according to their erosion and sediment control plan. The DC Department of Buildings said they'll follow up with their own inspections during construction. 

But some people are not confident that will happen, considering what happened at Grand View. 

"No! I'm sorry, not as things stand today," said Johnson. "I don't have faith in agencies."

RELATED: 9 first-time homeowners sue developer for fraud and discrimination

"I think in the city's push to achieve that development and densification, they're missing the key thing here that is not your typical vacant lot," Brandmeir said.

So, now neighbors are holding rallies and working with a lawyer to stop the development and save their playground.

"Now we leave it to the legal system to say, 'Hey, wrong has been done and now I'm going to correct it'.' The correction should give it back to the neighborhood.," said Everett.

RELATED: Anacostia homeowners want DC government to make them ‘whole’

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