3 bidding for unused elementary

Private academy hopes for new home in old building

Developer sees housing

Couple who live nearby also in running

Ecker turns lobbyist

January 05, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A highly regarded northwest Baltimore private school for learning disabled children is making a strong bid to buy the old Elkridge Elementary School building for a new, larger home, but the contest isn't over.

Officials of the Norbel School, a small, 20-year-old, private academy renting space at the Oheb Shalom synagogue in the 7300 block of Park Heights Ave., have hired former County Executive Charles I. "Chuck" Ecker as a lobbyist. And Howard County Executive James N. Robey, who is to decide the issue in about a month, said Maryland Secretary of Education Nancy S. Grasmick called him to praise Norbel.

"This is the perfect location for Norbel School. We need a home of our own," said Ed Ely, a Norbel board member who is senior vice president for land sales and marketing at Howard Research and Development, an affiliate of the Rouse Co. Ely, who said his son was among the school's first students, organized the acquisition effort.

Two other bidders are vying for the old school in Howard County's far northeast corner, including an experienced development team that wants to transform the building into 54 apartments for low-income elderly, and a neighboring couple who bid $100,000 but has no specific use in mind.

"I'd love to do it. I'm ready to go," Columbia developer James B. Forster said about his proposal for elderly housing.

Another option, if the bids are too far below the $900,000 appraised value, is demolishing the building and converting the 8.6 acres in the 6100 block of Old Washington Road into a park -- an idea mentioned by county Councilman Christopher J. Merdon. Demolition, however, could cost up to $300,000, said James M. Irvin, county public works director.

Robey said the county wants to get as much money as possible for the old building -- last used as a public school in 1991 -- while getting a new occupant the community can live with. County Head Start classes were held in the building until December 1998, when the old boilers failed.

"I told them my first responsibility is to the taxpayers," Robey said he told Elkridge residents at a meeting last month.

Robey and Raquel Sanudo, county administrative officer, say they face a tough decision because each proposal presents problems.

Forster, who last year completed a similar transformation at the old Cockeysville Elementary building on York Road in Baltimore County, is offering $325,000 cash for the Elkridge building and land, and would spend $3.3 million on renovations. But that deal depends on Forster's ability to assemble a package of state and federal subsidies to keep rents low, and he needs 18 months after a county decision to sell him the building to assemble his subsidies and close on the property, he said.

Forster has worked for several years developing his proposal, which includes an offer to donate a 2,500-square-foot space for a community center.

David J. and Deborah Marc, who live next to the school, put in a $100,000 bid, just to prevent a developer from buying the building cheap and using it for something objectionable, David Marc said.

Norbel's bid is for $500,000, according to documents submitted to the county, but only $200,000 of that is cash, and the school would require financing help and a special zoning exception. The remaining $300,000 of the purchase price would come in the form of tuition credits to county students sent there over the next decade. The problem, from Robey's perspective, is that the money would go to the school board, not the county's general fund.

Still, the Elkridge Community Association favors Norbel obtaining the building, said Kevin Doyle, the group's president.

"From all the research we've done the school is a very good neighbor. Some people here are big on preserving the building, and this not only preserves it but preserves it as a school," Doyle said. In addition, the school would not operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while housing for the elderly would, he said.

"The community doesn't want the housing. They want the school," said Ecker.

Norbel now counts 22 Howard County children among its 100 students, Ely said. Howard County pays the $14,800 annual tuition per student, plus transportation costs for 13 of the children, said Ron Caplan, county schools co- ordinator.

The school provides specialized services for children who have learning disabilities that have defied county school officials' efforts to improve students' performance.

Ely said Norbel's classes have no more than 12 students, with additional help from specialists in language and attention deficit disorders. The school must vacate its rented space by June 2001, he said, because Oheb Shalom is planning a major renovation. Norbel wants larger quarters to allow expansion through grade 12, and to provide outdoor athletic fields.

The Norbel plan is to spend $3.5 million on the first phase of renovation, which would replace all heating and cooling systems, install sprinklers, restore the windows to their original appearance, install an elevator and refinish about half the building.

"When you look at where our students live, fully 90 percent live within 30 minutes of Elkridge," Ely said.

Former County Councilman Paul R. Farragut, now director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, has also written a letter of recommendation for the school's proposal based on his son's experiences there and Richard B. Talkin, a prominent local zoning attorney, is representing the school.

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