Rural residents oppose private school proposal

County reviewing plan for Montessori facility on Hughes Shop Road

October 29, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Residents of Hughes Shop Road packed a development review hearing yesterday, questioning county administrators on a private school's plans to construct a $1.2 million building in their neighborhood.

The Montessori School of Westminster has purchased a 27-acre parcel about 1 1/2 miles north of Route 140, outside the corporate limits of the city.

The school recently submitted to the county its preliminary plans for a 12,000-square-foot building.

The review panel heard numerous comments from residents who oppose the project based on traffic and safety issues and the lack of public water and sewerage.

"We are not anywhere near approval of this project," said Steve Ford, county development review supervisor. "All items will be looked at and addressed."

The school, which opened in Westminster 25 years ago, is operating in two locations in the city. It has lost its lease on one building and wants to relocate under one roof.

Bonnie Lockard, a Montessori School board member, said she and others searched the incorporated area of Westminster for a school site but could find none. The school has a tight deadline for moving because St. Benjamin's Lutheran Church is ending its lease to Montessori in June. The school needs new quarters by September, she said.

"There is in reality an urgency," she said. "We're not trying to sneak this by anybody. We're just trying to jump through all the hoops."

Kristie Killam, chairwoman of the newly formed Hughes Shop Road Area Neighborhood Coalition, delivered a petition with more than 140 signatures of those opposed to the school. She reviewed the county's traffic counts and estimated that the school would double vehicles on the winding country road.

"For 10 years, traffic has stayed at about 800 vehicles a day," Killam said. "A school with 185 students would mean an extra 600 to 800 cars passing our houses every day of the school year."

The school's enrollment is 125 children who range in age from preschool through seventh grade. While the new building, which would have seven classrooms, a library and offices, would increase the school's capacity by 60, the school has no plans to grow by that number soon.

The panel listened to the arguments, but the final decision falls to the county Planning and Zoning Commission.

"This is a technical review agency," said Ford. "Whether or not there is a school is not in our hands. We have no approval authority."

Ford stressed repeatedly that Carroll's land-use regulations allow schools on land zoned for agriculture. Residents said they will take every opportunity to voice their opposition.

"If this project erodes my soil or devalues my property, I am going to sue," said Dennis Britton, whose lot adjoins the school. "These changes change the natural lay of the land."

Ed Singer, county assistant director of environmental health, whose office is also reviewing the school application, said many questions remain to be answered. The school must secure a ground water appropriation permit from the state before it can move forward.

"Unless they can prove that the project has no impact on neighboring wells and the ground water in general, they cannot get the permit," said Singer.

Norman Doggett, who lives near the site, said the neighborhood is notorious for septic systems that do not pass inspection. If the school opens and its septic system fails, he asked, will the city bail out the school with public sewerage?

The city's water and sewer lines are more than a half-mile from the school site, and city officials have said there are no plans to extend service to Hughes Shop Road.

The coalition also took its opposition to the Westminster Common Council meeting Monday.

At that session, Doggett said, "It's a nice school and we don't have anything against them. We're out in the country, and it's nice and quiet out there. We're not against [the school], but we're going to fight all the way on this."

The council is considering a revenue bond issue that would help finance the project. Residents question the city's role, which is to be the conduit for the sale of the bond.

"Westminster is only looking at the financial aspects of this project," said Killam. "They are supposed to consider the health, welfare and safety of everyone involved."

The city's bond counsel recommended the project for several reasons, said Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan. Nearly all the students and staff live within the city or its environs.

"I don't think counsel implied that each and every person would benefit," said Yowan. "If that were the case, nothing would ever get done."

Sun staff writer Anne Haddad contributed to this article.

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