Wastewater debate delaying school plans

Rising pupil numbers add to issue's urgency


May 10, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Months of uncertainty over how to dispose of wastewater from a planned 400-student addition to Glenelg High School in western Howard County will delay opening the new wing, school officials say.

Even a best-case scenario will force at least a several-month delay, said Sydney L. Cousin, associate school superintendent for finance and operations. And if another series of hurdles can't be cleared quickly, the addition could be delayed a full year or more beyond the scheduled August 2001 opening, he said.

"It's real dicey, because when you have schools on well and septic systems there's no chance of hooking up to sewers," he said.

Glenelg is projected to enroll 1,073 students next school year -- 132 over capacity. More home construction in the western county promises an ever-growing problem. High school enrollments are predicted to swell throughout Maryland in the next few years as children who crowded elementary classes in the 1990s grow up.

If the Glenelg addition is delayed for too long, said Thomas L. Bianco, PSTA president at the school, "It's going to be a problem and not just at Glenelg. They'll have to shift some of those pupils to other high schools. It will impact maybe all the high schools."

The 1957 high school's sewage system has been slowly failing for years. A plan to extend public water and sewer pipes into the rural western county to serve the school was rejected because it would require building several expensive pumping stations and use of the state-owned right of way. In addition, officials fear installing sewers might encourage more development.

Howard officials are caught between the need to expand the school, in the 14000 block of Burntwoods Road, and nearby residents' opposition to two possible ways of handling the wastewater.

County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, appears familiar with those competing pressures. "Hopefully this will work out. I don't like that the addition would be delayed. The long and short of it is, the addition has to be built," he said, despite pressure from constituents who don't like the wastewater treatment options.

The original plan, to build a $2 million wastewater treatment plant behind nearby Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School, provoked anger among neighbors who complained they were caught by surprise and who fear smelly discharges and lowered property values. The plant, school officials said, could also serve a new Triadelphia Middle School scheduled for construction on the same site in 2003.

Disagreement over the 36,000-gallon-per-day plant stalled plans for the addition last fall, while officials backtracked to explore options.

"I don't really think we expected such a negative response," said Glenelg Principal Linda T. Wise.

The only other practical choice, officials say, is to buy 20 acres to expand Glenelg's existing septic field.

But until recently, Glenelg-area landowners haven't been willing to discuss testing their land for septic quality, much less selling it, Cousin said.

"For many months, people wouldn't talk to us at all," he said. Now, the county is negotiating with two landowners for "right of entry" agreements that would allow the county to conduct percolation tests to see if the land absorbs fluids at the proper rate.

Time is a crucial element in the testing, too. If the tests aren't done by Monday, they can't be repeated until January, according to state health department regulations. Testing must be done when water tables are naturally high, to make sure the septic system won't pollute ground water.

If the land percolates, then purchase talks could begin, but if they fail, or if the owners won't sell, the county would be forced to go back to the wastewater treatment plant concept.

That, said one critic, will merely renew the dispute.

"They're trying to jam this down our throat," said Frederic Tomarchio, a Glenelg resident who said Howard County officials can prevent development if they want to.

"What really drives me crazy is, if I was a businessman trying to do what they are trying to do, there is no way I could get that done. They're trying to circumvent their own laws," said Tomarchio, who owns a local chain of tire stores. "The bottom line is, the school board is going to do what suits them. It's like living in the Soviet Union. The only difference is we pay a lot more taxes here."

Cousin said he will have a recommendation for the school board at its May 25 meeting, which will begin at 7: 30 p.m.

"We're going to have to make a decision shortly after that hearing which way to go. We knew that it wasn't going to be easy. It's proven not to be easy," he said.

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