Ending one of its nagging legal battles, the Carroll County Board of Education has agreed to pay Melanie and Rodney A. Stambaugh $250,000 for a strip of property the school system took without permission and for use of a wetland in which officials hope to discharge treated sewage.
When the school system started the $16 million renovation of Francis Scott Key High School in 1998, the Stambaughs woke up to find their driveway disappearing. Without warning, contractors for the school system knocked down their pine trees and crowded the 1,115-foot gravel path with trucks and equipment while constructing a turning area for school buses and a 200-car parking lot.
Yesterday's settlement resolves not only the issue of the driveway leading to the couple's 74-acre dairy farm but also brings the county one step closer to opening a wastewater treatment plant that has sat idle since the school system built the facility at Francis Scott Key without required state environmental and construction permits.
"I don't believe they can ever be happy in the sense of what they've been through, but I know they're certainly relieved," said David K. Bowersox, who represented the Stambaughs in their $1.5 million lawsuit against the Board of Education. "They have been incredibly frustrated with the circumstances, understandably so and legitimately so."
The Stambaughs did not return several phone messages.
In the nine-page settlement agreement -- in which the school system makes no admission of guilt -- school officials agree to pay the Stambaughs $250,000 for use of the wetlands, the 30-foot-wide right of way of their driveway and "damages allegedly suffered" as a result of construction at Francis Scott Key.
The strip of right-of-way property between the school's ball fields and classroom building off Bark Hill Road was appraised in October 1998 at $1,000. School and county officials would not reveal the value of the 5-acre wetlands the county hopes to use with the wastewater treatment plant.
In the settlement, the school system also agreed to pay the couple's legal fees up to $15,000, pave their driveway and conduct a boundary survey of the Stambaughs' farm at county expense.
The Stambaughs agreed to drop all claims and dismiss their lawsuit in Carroll Circuit Court. Both parties also agreed to release the other from future legal claims.
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, school officials are required to notify them and to return the property to its original condition.
School officials acknowledged that neither requirement was met in this case, but they said it was too late to fix the mistake.
Instead, school officials offered to buy the driveway from the Stambaughs and grant them a right of way. But the Stambaughs said such an arrangement would limit their ability to sell the land because no one wants property without access to a road. The couple asked the school system to build them a driveway, but school officials rejected that, arguing the $150,000 price was too high.
Asked how the figure climbed to $250,000 plus legal fees, both sides would say only that it was a negotiated settlement that goes beyond the issue of the driveway.
The county, which took over the Francis Scott Key wastewater treatment plant in April 1999, has applied for a Maryland Department of the Environment permit to discharge treated sewage into the wetlands on the Stambaugh property -- a request that county Public Works Director J. Michael Evans likened to "closing the barn door a bit after the horses are out."
The $800,000 sewage treatment plant -- built to replace the school's aging septic system -- serves as a short-term holding tank while the school system pays $5,600 a month to haul raw sewage from Francis Scott Key to the wastewater treatment plant at Runnymede Elementary.
Although Assistant Superintendent Vernon F. Smith Jr. said MDE's permit and approval process could take 30 days to 18 months, Evans said the review could drag on for several years after all the public hearings and appeals.
"So we could be hauling for a number of years yet," Evans said.
The Stambaugh settlement occurs in a year when the Carroll school system has spent $368,260 on attorneys fees, settlements and an internal investigation by a team of attorneys and former FBI agents into botched construction projects. Smith said the school system typically spends about $180,000 a year on legal fees, not including settlements.
One construction-related lawsuit -- filed last year by John and Virginia Lovell, who own farmland adjacent to Francis Scott Key -- remains. The couple and their neighbors have demanded that MDE assess penalties against the school system for building the wastewater treatment plant without permits and force it to dismantle the facility.