When Elizabeth Wrightman washes dishes, she can look out her kitchen window and see the retention pond in her Greenwood backyard.
The view allows her to keep an eye on her two young boys, who fish in the pond regularly. But two weeks ago, she looked out the window and saw divers jumping into the pond. Police officers gathered near the pond’s edge, and police dogs walked the perimeter.
She went outside to see what was going on. A neighborhood boy, 3-year-old Michael Stepien, was missing, and police feared he might have gone into the pond. At that point, she began seeing the pond as a safety hazard and wasn’t sure if she wanted her sons fishing there anymore.
The question of whether neighborhood ponds should be surrounded by a fence immediately surfaced on social media as the public sought information on what happened to Stepien and how to help look for him. In the end, he was found in a neighbor’s home, not in the pond.
In 2010, an Indianapolis child drowned in a retention pond; and months earlier, a man lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a retention pond in Greenwood. The accident prompted an effort to put guardrails around some ponds close to busy roads, but they are not gated or fenced from passers-by.
Franklin, Greenwood and Johnson County have made changes to local rules during the past five years that require guardrails around retention ponds near roadways to prevent motorists from driving into the ponds.
Despite occasional requests for retention pond fencing requirements from the public to keep children out, local planning and zoning officials do not expect a change any time soon. Pond fences would do little to keep children out and would even create a safety hazard of their own, said Bill Peeples, Greenwood planning director.
“We could put fences around retention ponds, but kids are only going to climb over them,” Peeples said. “Then you’re stuck with something that will only hamper the emergency response if the child happens to fall in the pond.”
The concern is that a fence would create an obstacle to dive teams in the event of a rescue and significantly slow down response times.
“Putting a fence around a pond makes it harder to rescue a person that does fall in,” said Travis Underhill, city engineer for Franklin. “If the rescue workers can’t back a boat up to the water’s edge, they’re going to have to carry the boat to the water by hand.”
Underhill said fences also could make pond maintenance more difficult for a development’s landscaping crew. This would lead to brush overgrowth — another obstacle for rescue teams, he said.
Greenwood, Franklin and Johnson County all have codes that require ponds to have safety ledges — a 6- to 8-foot-wide ledge, 18 to 30 inches underwater, along the perimeter of a pond. This is designed to keep water shallow to a point, allowing people who fall in to safely stand up.
In the case of requiring fences around retention ponds, though, the cons simply outweigh the pros, Underhill said.
“The end goal of installing a fence is always safety, but you’ve got to consider all angles first,” Underhill said. “Sometimes, a fence isn’t always the best option.”