School height rule is eased

Roadblock cleared for private academy in Finksburg

120-foot maximum OK'd

Commissioners' vote unanimously to drop 35-foot limit

June 23, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Clearing a roadblock for the development of a 600-student private school in Finksburg, the Carroll commissioners yesterday increased the height limits placed on school buildings in the county.

In a unanimous decision, the commissioners voted to raise the maximum height for school buildings from 35 feet to 120 feet -- the limit now for all public or quasi-public buildings.

Yesterday's vote will allow the construction of the three-story, 55-foot tall Gerstell Academy, a nonprofit day school for students in grades K-12. The plans for the Georgian-style brick school with white columns and a large gymnasium had been set back in May after the Carroll Circuit Court denied a request for a height variance.

Frederick G. Smith, a dentist and a vice president of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. who wants to build the school, asked that the building be constructed to 55 feet to prevent sprawl and preserve open space.

The height variance was granted by the Carroll County zoning administrator in August and by the Board of Zoning Appeals after a hearing in October.

Saying a private academy is a quasi-public use and that the height exception was needed for the project, the zoning appeals board voted unanimously to allow the height variance. County planners also supported the project.

But a neighboring property owner, the M.E.F. Partnership, took the zoning appeals board decision to Carroll County Circuit Court, where Judge Daniel W. Moylan ruled against Smith on May 13.

Moylan, a retired judge from Washington County who is hearing cases in Carroll, ruled the zoning appeals board was wrong.

Moylan said a private school is not a quasi-public building. The judge also ruled that the variance should not be allowed just because the school could not be built according to the architect's design.

The attorney for M.E.F. Partnership could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Smith's attorney, John R. Wise, said he was pleased by yesterday's vote and that construction was expected to begin later this year.

"As approved, [the ordinance] will permit the construction of the academy as planned," he said.

The architectural style of the academy is comparable to that of Western Maryland College or the University of Virginia, where red brick buildings with tall columns and pitched roofs are arranged around a central quadrangle.

The academy plans also call for tennis courts, a stadium, a baseball field and practice fields on a 97-acre campus located in the 2600 block of Old Westminster Pike.

Jack Lyburn, Carroll's director of economic development, said the school is "extremely important" in the county's plans to attract other businesses, as well as to offer parents another education alternative for their chil- dren.

Although the existing zoning would allow him to build 50 houses, Smith has said he plans to keep the land in the Freven Foundation, a public foundation he created a few years ago, and to preserve it from development.

During a public hearing before the commissioners' vote yesterday, one resident raised concerns about providing fire protection to a 120-foot building. Doris Edwards of Finksburg asked whether the county had proper equipment to rescue students from such a tall building.

The commissioners and county staff said that several fire companies, including Westminster and Hampstead, had adequate equipment to respond to emergencies in tall buildings.

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