Board bulldozes way onto couple's farm

Residents lose land during renovations of nearby high school

April 01, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Melanie and Rodney Stambaugh once drove down a gravel path shaded with pine trees to reach their 74-acre dairy farm.

But when school officials started the $16 million renovation of nearby Francis Scott Key High School last summer, the couple woke up to find their driveway disappearing.

Without warning, contractors knocked down the pine trees and crowded the gravel path with trucks and equipment.

When the Stambaughs complained, they learned that part of their 1,000-foot driveway was being replaced by the high school's new bus turnaround and 200-car parking lot.

It was too late to stop it.

"They just came in and took it," said Rodney Stambaugh, whose farm is behind the high school near Union Bridge. "They told us, `Sorry about your luck. It's too late now.' "

The Stambaughs have been fighting for compensation from the Board of Education since last year but have not been able to reach an agreement.

In 1985, the Stambaughs granted the school the right of way to their driveway. Under the agreement, the school system was allowed to use the driveway for access to the school property and for utility work. But it makes clear that if anything is done to interfere with the property, the Board of Education is required to notify the Stambaughs and return the property to its original condition.

Neither requirement was met in this case, both sides agree.

School officials acknowledge making a mistake. They failed to consult the Stambaughs about the school renovation's impact on the couple's driveway, a 30-foot-wide strip between the school's ball fields and classroom buildings off Bark Hill Road.

"Quite honestly, it was a surprise to me that they had not been contacted. It was something that should have been done as part of the project," said Vernon Smith, former director of the school construction department, which planned the project. He has been promoted to assistant superintendent of administration.

Smith said a construction supervisor had been asked to notify the couple but that "the contact was never made. It was disappointing and embarrassing."

Construction troubles

The Stambaughs' lost driveway is the latest struggle for the Board of Education's construction department. Since an ambitious school building program began four years ago, four of the first five schools managed by the department are over budget by a total of more than $2 million. Two did not open on time.

School officials face a lawsuit and the possibility of state penalties for building Francis Scott Key's wastewater treatment plant without required state environmental and construction permits. The school system might be forced to dismantle the $800,000 plant if a lawsuit filed by neighbors is successful.

The Stambaughs say their driveway is another mistake that could have been avoided.

"If we built a house, we would have to obey all the rules. When the Board of Education builds something, they feel like they're above the law," Melanie Stambaugh said.

School officials have offered to buy the driveway from the Stambaughs and grant them a right of way. The Stambaughs say such an arrangement would limit their ability to sell the land. No one wants property without owning access to a road, they said.

The Stambaughs want the school system to build them a driveway, but school officials rejected that, arguing the $150,000 price is too high.

Negotiations are continuing, Smith said.

The Stambaughs now get home by driving through the parking lot and bus turnaround. They said they are worried about what their responsibility might be if an accident occurs in the parking lot, which is still their property.

In their fight for compensation, the Stambaughs' legal bill has reached $4,000, which they say they can't afford, given the volatile dairy market.

"I shouldn't have to fight so hard for something I already own," Melanie Stambaugh said.

Previously, the Stambaughs and the school system had a good relationship.

Never complained

The Stambaughs graduated from Francis Scott Key High School, allowed the cross country team to train in their fields and put up with the noise and distractions of football and baseball games.

"We've never complained about that stuff," Melanie Stambaugh said.

Rodney Stambaugh compared the Board of Education's actions to someone planting corn in the school's baseball field, something he has been tempted to do to get its attention.

"What they did is no different," he said.

Though it's only a small portion of her property, Melanie Stambaugh said it was significant to her family. "If someone took 10 feet of your property, you would fight for it."

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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