Proposed School Site Includes Wetlands Plan To Detour Environmentally Sensitive Bog

October 31, 1990|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

County school officials are negotiating for a southeastern elementary school site crossed by wetlands, although the environmentally protected section limits how the Gorman Road property can be developed.

Caught between pressure to add a school in rapidly growing southeastern Howard and a lack of available sites, officials judged the 20.6-acre site near I-95 acceptable for an elementary school. Officials consider the 1.9 acres of wetlands -- separating playing fields and the school building -- a constraint, but one they hope to be able to work around.

"It's a limitation on how much of the site is available, but not so limiting that we can't work with it," said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations.

Wetlands at other schools, such as Patuxtent Valley Middle and the planned Burleigh Manor Middle, are at the fringes of the school property.

But at the proposed southeastern elementary site, they form a band across the center.

What the Gorman Road site has going for it is its location, Cousin said.

Designed to relieve overcrowding at Laurel Woods, Hammond and Bollman Bridge elementary schools, it is centrally located among them. The school is scheduled to open in August 1992.

Wetlands, areas in which the ground is saturated enough to support water-loving plants, have been hit hard by development statewide, said Frank W. Dawson III, chief of the program development section for non-tidal wetlands with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The result is a loss of animal habitats, of natural floodwater storage and of the wetlands' natural filtering action to remove sediments and nutrients that would otherwise reach streams.

State law now requires developers to obtain permits to disturb wetlands, even in areas like the Gorman Road property, where the ground is dry most of the year. The land, now owned by Howard Research and Development (HRD), the Columbia development arm of The Rouse Co., is currently used as pasture for cows.

The southeastern school site plan calls for constructing the building on one side of the wetlands and playing fields on the opposite side. Pupils will have to detour east or west from the school building, then turn north to cross to the softball, soccer and other playing fields. They would not be permitted to take the direct route through the wetlands.

Architect Philip Eddy of Eddy and Eckhardt, Great Falls, Va., said the wetlands and site's 34-foot slope dictated the building's location.

When school board Chairman Karen B. Campbell recently asked whether children would be willing to take the long way around to the playing fields, school officials replied that those fields are for supervised activities, so teachers will lead students to them.

The southeastern elementary school "won't be the first time we've had a circuitous route," Campbell said last week. Children at Deep Run Elementary School, for example, get to playing fields by a route that circumvents a steep slope.

One solution to the crossover dilemma, suggested by facilities planner Georgia Davis, is the construction of a bridge. However, Davis said, it is uncertain which agency could authorize a bridge. Some wetland disturbance permits now governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are being transferred to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Cousin, however, said he believes a bridge is not needed. The architect's current plans do not include a bridge.

Construction may affect adjacent wetlands, depending on sediment control measures taken by the builder during construction, said Tom Pearce, chair of the Howard County chapter of the Sierra Club.

School officials are hoping they can turn the wetlands into a plus for the school, as has been done elsewhere.

Wetlands at Patuxent Valley Middle School and the adjacent Savage Park, for example, are incorporated into the school's environmental studies, Patuxtent Valley principal David R. Oaks said.

"We do a lot of observation," Oaks said. He said sixth-grade science teacher Robert Ceddell has had students place food on a smooth clay area and check footprints the next morning to learn what animals have visited.

Finding the Gorman Road site for the new elementary school was difficult for the school system.

"Nobody wanted to sell or the (prospective) site wasn't the right size," recalled Alton Scavo, vice president of The Rouse Co. He said HRD, which owns property in that vicinity, initially hoped the school system could find a site that did not include its acreage.

Last year, school officials enlisted County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo and Councilman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, in whose district the school will go, to persuade HRD to offer a site.

In March, the company and school officials agreed to negotiate on the Gorman Road property that includes the wetlands.

HRD had sought to get "adequate facilities" credit with the county toward potential development on its land in that area in exchange for providing the school location.

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