Sporting old school jackets and "Save Bates" buttons, several hundred people crowded into Annapolis City Hall to plead with the mayor andcouncil to "do the right thing" and save their alma mater.
Gray-haired graduates, neighborhood activists, two former mayors and an 83-year-old minister stood up to urge a rezoning request needed to convert the abandoned Wiley H. Bates High School into a community and senior center.
They were opposed by a group of conservationists and critics, whowarned that the developer promising to pay for renovating the asbestos-riddled school is "no knight in shining armor." The opponents argued that Bates could be renovated without resorting to a partnership with a builder who wants to develop 85 town houses on the grounds.
The emotional hearing lasted more than seven hours before ending shortly before 2 a.m. yesterday. Weary council members scheduled another hearing for Jan. 29 to give developer Leonard Frenkil time to testify.
Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins told the standing-room-only audience early on that everyone would be given a chance to speak. Several aldermen tried to restrict testimony to the rezoning issue but stopped afterspeakers continued to move beyond the technicalities.
"We're not dealing with a cut-and-dry issue," said Dallas Evans, head of the Community Action Agency, as the crowd chanted, "Fairness, fairness."
For five hours, members of the non-profit Bates Foundation argued that the development plan is their last chance to save the red-brick building that was once Anne Arundel County's only high school for blacks. It was reorganized as a middle school when the county finished integrating its schools 26 years ago, then closed in 1981.
They reminisced about the school's glory days and called up the ghosts of famousgraduates in trying to persuade the council to grant the rezoning. They argued that the neighborhood, a "community of modest and honest people," has changed with the school vacant and deteriorating, its windows boarded up and its grounds filled with trash.
State law permits rezoning only if a mistake was made or a neighborhood has changed substantially. Saying neither criteria had been met, the city's planning staff and Planning and Zoning Commission recommended denying Frenkil's request. The current zoning is for single-family homes.
"Certainly having a school closed is not positive," acknowledged Eileen P. Fogarty, city planning and zoning director.
"Despite that, the neighborhood appears to have carried on" and remains a "stable, well-kept community" of single-family homes, she said.
Frenkil and the Bates Foundation argued that her definition of a neighborhood was too narrow. They include more of Spa Road, which has a row of modern apartments and town-house complexes.
Former Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer, now deputy director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, pointed out that West Street has been heavily commercialized. He said the 16-acre Bates property should be rezoned as a "buffer" area.
Paraphrasing the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," Moyer concluded: "Don't kill the Bates project."
He was followed by the Rev. Leroy Bowman, the 83-year-old minister of First Baptist Church, who called Bates not just "a piece of real-estate" but "a dream."
While acknowledging those arguments' appeal, the project's critics challenged whether a decaying school was enough of a reason to allow intense development near the headwaters of Spa Creek.
"Don't be duped into thinking that it's anything else but a profit-motivated deal," said Stanford Womack, a dissenting Bates Foundation member. Saying Frenkil is no "knight coming to save Bates," he urged the council to save the property for recreation instead.
"I think we're selling ourselves a little short here,"he said.