Rocks hinder construction of school Deep formations force costs to climb at Westminster site

'The most expensive type'

Officials consider alternate locations for building project

September 23, 1996|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

What a difference a foot makes.

In 1994, Carroll County officials wanted to buy about 100 acres for a Westminster high school and elementary school on the hilly site of a nursery along Route 140. Test borings to 25 feet found moist soil, sand, clay and rock fragments -- easily penetrated by the auger.

Last month, with plans for Cranberry Station Elementary School in hand and bids about to be sought for construction, they drilled deeper -- and almost immediately and almost in each spot were stopped by impenetrable rock.

"It's hard -- and hard to get rid of," said Lester P. Surber, the county's supervisor of school facilities and planning.

The rock, a metamorphic schist, would have to be blasted apart and hauled away -- about 45,000 to 50,000 cubic yards of it.

That would raise the construction cost by $1 million, money the county doesn't have and can't get, said Vernon F. Smith, director of school support services.

The project is budgeted at $5.7 million, and "we've been told the county is at its limit of debt affordability."

"It jumped by $1 million after we received this test-boring report," Smith said. "We only have $5.7 million, so we cannot proceed at this point, knowing what we know about the rock there. It's hard rock -- the most expensive type to remove."

Ruling out the use of force against the formidable object, officials have been brainstorming for solutions and plan further meetings with the county next week.

Smith said he expected to return to the school board with a proposal by the end of next month.

School officials said they still intend to keep to their timetable for the much-needed school, which is targeted to open in September 1998.

"Our goals are, No. 1, to meet our schedule to allow the school to be bid in spring of 1997," Smith said. "Our target for occupancy is still September 1998. Our No. 3 goal is to keep the project within the allotted budget."

Alternatives studied

Among the possible solutions are finding a different site for the school or moving the building on the existing site, Smith said.

The county paid $2.2 million for the Westminster Nurseries site and took the deed in December 1994, Surber said.

The land lies across Route 140 and is divided by Center Street extended, with about 65 acres designated for a high school and 35 acres for Cranberry Station Elementary School.

"At the time, the county was looking primarily for a high school site," Smith said, although the elementary school later took precedence.

"It was critical to find property within the city, with water and sewer," Smith explained. "Trying to find 65 acres [for a high school] was difficult." It also was important to find land zoned for agriculture, rather than the much pricier residential-development designation.

Going into the purchase, he said, "We already knew it would be topographically challenging because it was hilly."

The county's prototype school design was modified to a long-and-narrow configuration to eliminate a wing that would have protruded into the hillside.

Difficult ground

Most schools wouldn't need to excavate much below 25 feet, Surber said, but the 20-degree slope on the elementary school property required digging deeper and cutting into the hillside, not only for the school building but to level playing fields.

"Soccer balls do tend to roll downhill," Smith observed dryly.

Officials thought they had adapted to the site, Smith said.

"The preliminary tests showed no solid rock down to 20 or 25 feet. Then, lo and behold we got the report of the final test borings Aug. 28."

On a less hilly site, Surber said, the preliminary test borings would have been only to 15 feet, followed by 25-foot samples. But in the beginning, they went deeper on the Cranberry site, with 84 borings to 25 feet.

When the design was ready in July, they went even deeper -- to 47 feet -- at 21 spots in the intended "footprint of the building," said Surber, who received the report about three weeks ago.

"And they started hitting rock. The auger would just stop, no matter how much pressure they put on it -- sometimes right at 26 feet, just a foot farther down," he said. "Sometimes they could drill a few feet before refusal. One went all the way down.

"But it was right there everywhere in the footprint of the building."

'Forward funding'

No help will be forthcoming, at least for now, from the state, Surber said. With state construction money backlogged and the need for classroom space urgent, the county embarked upon the ambitious and hopeful practice of "forward funding" its most-needed projects.

After receiving planning authorization but no construction money from the state for Cranberry Station, the county went ahead with plans to build the school. Reimbursement from the state would come later.

The Westminster high school project at the Cranberry site has been delayed several years -- stamped "deferred" by the state, officials said.

But it will be submitted for planning approval, again, in the 1998 fiscal year.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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