Board OKs plans for academy Zoning appeals panel approves variance for private school

'Majestic tall buildings'

95-acre campus to be built on Old Westminster Pike

October 28, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

A television executive's dream of an elegant private academy in Finksburg cleared a major zoning hurdle yesterday, allowing Dr. Frederick G. Smith to build the red-brick and white-columned Georgian quadrangle he envisions.

Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously to grant a height variance for buildings on the 95-acre campus in the 2600 block of Old Westminster Pike.

Smith, a 49-year-old dentist and vice president at his family's Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc. in Baltimore, has a contract to purchase the land to build his Gerstell Academy.

Smith plans a nonprofit, nonreligious day school for 600 or more students from kindergarten through 12th grade, said his attorney, John Wise of Baltimore.

"We intend this to be a very first-rate, a showplace school, with majestic tall buildings that will convey a sense, an aura of leadership," he said.

The style will be similar to the University of Virginia or Western Maryland College.

Architect Timothy H. Sanders Sr., president of Sanders Designs in Timonium, presented sketches of the three-story buildings that would lie in the center of the property, surrounded by athletic fields and green space.

The current zoning -- a mix of residential and conservation -- limits buildings to 35 feet. Smith sought a height variance up to 55 feet to accommodate that architectural vision -- and to get a big enough gymnasium.

The 35-foot limit, Sanders said, would mean "a sprawling campus" of low-lying buildings and a loss of green space.

County Zoning Administrator George L. Beisser approved the request in August, noting in his opinion that current zoning would allow 55 houses to be built with interconnecting roads.

In written comments, county planners supported the school, and no objections were raised from county health and environmental officers, or from Baltimore City, which controls buffer lands adjoining Liberty Reservoir.

But Beisser's decision was appealed by an adjoining landowner, M.E.F. Partnership, including partner Merle Barnes. Barnes was present but did not address the board, relying upon the legal arguments of his attorney, Michael Pate of Towson.

Wise noted two provisions in the zoning law: first, that the property is unique and obeying the restrictions would be a hardship; and second, that a school should be a permitted use -- and entitled to build up to 120 feet high with additional setback from the road.

Pate said that nothing about the land imposes the kind of hardship contemplated by the zoning law. The architectural style "is an election they have made."

Issues such as water and sewer will be addressed later in the construction process, the appeals board members noted in response to a concern raised by Richard D. Oler of Finksburg.

Oler lives less than a mile from the school site and didn't know about the plans until just before the hearing, he said. He was concerned about how much water the school would draw.

"Mr. Smith is talking about the aesthetics, but not about the major reason that I'm concerned wells," he said.

About a half-dozen neighbors attended in support of the proposed school.

George Klinger, a 27-year resident of adjoining Brown Road, told the board, "I think a school would be good for this area. A few of the other residents here I've talked to have indicated they would like to see a school.

"It would be a shame to see houses," Klinger said.

He told Oler that after more than 100 homes were built in nearby River Downs, the water level in his well didn't drop.

Smith said previously that his idea arose from talking about education with more than 9,000 students ages 6 to 22 as he tended their teeth.

A Boys' Latin School graduate, he sends his three children to McDonogh School and envisions a private school such as McDonogh for Carroll County. Gerstell is a family name, he said.

"I'm doing it all on my own," he said. "I've been thinking about it for eight or nine years.

"I came to the realization that the curriculum they're getting, the emphasis in the curriculum, is not turning out the kind of guy or gal we need to step up in our country."

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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