Demand of land for schools protested Eminent domain suit, board's price offer likely to go to trial

July 01, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school board voted last week to take a 78-acre property in Glenelg through eminent domain to build an elementary and a middle school in what officials believe to be the first such action in school system history.

But the move has angered dozens of residents who fear the new schools will bring more traffic and environmental problems to their neighborhood.

To make matters worse, they say, the board didn't publicly announce its plans for the schools until May -- despite the board having quietly filed a lawsuit to take over the property in mid-February.

The land -- at Triadelphia and Folly Quarter roads -- is owned by Howard Hunt Properties Inc. and has been used by Howard County Iron Bridge Hounds Inc. since the 1930s to board foxhounds and horses.

The board is seeking to use Maryland's law of eminent domain, which allows it to take land it believes is required for school purposes, paying either a negotiated price or what a court determines is a fair value.

The company and the hounds club are contesting the board's decision to take the land and the price the board is offering. The dispute is scheduled for trial July 17 in Howard County Circuit Court.

The school board hopes to open the elementary school on the land in fall 1998 and the middle school in fall 2003, relieving severe crowding at area schools. The neighborhood's tensions boiled over during the school board's hearing on the proposed site Thursday night.

More than a half-dozen residents, testifying on behalf of several dozen others, urged the board to find another location. Several stormed out of the meeting before the board voted to condemn the land, shouting that the board wasn't listening to their concerns.

"They just ignored us," said Bonnie Murphy, who lives across the street from where the schools would be located. "It was a done deal before we came in."

School board members deny that they had made up their minds in advance, saying they are trying to address the concerns and pledging that the school system will work with residents to ensure the schools are "good neighbors."

"If they had presented compelling reasons why putting schools in that area would be detrimental to everyone, then I would have reconsidered," said Susan Cook, the board's chairwoman. "But I didn't hear that. What I heard were 'not in my front yard' concerns."

Among the residents' biggest concerns are that the schools would add to area traffic and diminish supplies of well water.

"I moved to this area for the nature and the character of the neighborhood, and I fear that traffic will increase and degrade the property values," testified Monica Thomas, who lives on nearby Buckskin Lake Drive. "I'm also concerned about the water usage and the septic fields."

Most of the other residents who testified echoed her concerns, adding they also are worried about the schools' bringing vandalism and more noise to the neighborhood. Two residents testified in favor of the site, saying they preferred new schools to new homes or a shopping center.

School board members said they are sympathetic to the residents' concerns but pointed to the school system's history of working with neighborhoods to alleviate such concerns as vandalism and noise. School officials have worked with residents of Gorman Road -- where elementary and middle schools are planned -- to resolve potential traffic and access problems, for example.

Bill Grau, the school system's site planner, said traffic studies would not be done until later in the process. He said the schools would use less water than a housing development.

"Traffic is going to be a problem in the western part of the county as long as there is development," said board member Karen Campbell. "These students are going to be your neighbors, and I hope you don't think your neighbors will bring your property values down and bring vandalism. I find that distressing."

Meanwhile, Hunt Properties and the hounds club charge that the school system is acting too quickly and refusing to pay a fair price. The dispute -- which stems from the board's February petition to take the property -- appears ready go to trial this month unless a settlement is reached in the next two weeks.

Although school officials won't comment on the negotiations, court records indicate that their appraiser estimated the value of the land at $12,500 an acre.

Hunt Properties -- which essentially owns land for the 75-member hounds club to use for its foxhounds and horses -- says developers are willing to pay more than $20,000 an acre for the 78-acre parcel, according to E. Alexander Adams, an attorney for the club. The land is zoned rural-residential and could accommodate 30 to 40 homes.

J. Thomas Scrivener, hounds club president, also fears that the 120 foxhounds that are cared for on the property might have to be put to sleep because the board's rapid construction timetable means there may not be time to find or build a new home for them.

But Scrivener -- a developer in the county -- acknowledged that the site selected by the board is probably the best one available in western Howard. "I just wish they would offer a fair price," said Scrivener, who said both he and another developer have offered to pay $20,000 an acre for the land to build homes there.

Cook, stressing that the negotiations are confidential, said the board has made a fair offer.

"There may come to be a point where it's too expensive," Cook said. "We can't pay an exorbitant amount of money for the land because county funds are not limitless."

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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