The emotional dispute over Howard County's plans to build a school for troubled students behind school board headquarters on Route 108 seemed over after a board vote in April - but a fight between county agencies is threatening to reopen the issue.
The Robey administration is refusing to approve plans for the building, claiming that school officials knew all along their plan would never fly without a road entering the property from the exclusive Gaither Hunt and Gaither Farms Estates communities behind it. This road would bisect the school land and connect Route 108 with Winter Thicket Road.
But building it would require redesigning the school project on the 20-acre site, forcing months of delay, school officials say. They reject county claims that traffic safety is the issue, saying the county wants the new road to ease the way for homebuilding - a charge county officials reject.
County Executive James N. Robey met with school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke for two hours yesterday on the issue, but Robey said nothing was resolved, except to meet again.
"We met today and we had a good discussion," he said. "We'll go back and take a look and get together."
This latest twist is another example of the tensions between the autonomous school board and the county government, and the difficulty in finding open land on which to build schools in a "not-in-my-back-yard" era.
The board agreed to build the school without the road to help mollify opposition from residents to a school for difficult students - some returning to open society from juvenile detention. Under the board-approved plan, all traffic to the school would enter and leave from Route 108.
"It's ludicrous that they would put a school with these programs within 600 feet [of homes] and put a paved road from the school to that community," says Gaither Hunt resident Terrence C. Hunt. "Someday that road will be a [Route] 108 access for development to the north of us."
But residents of an older part of that area, Gaither Farms Estates, want the road to help get traffic off Gaither Farm Road, which is the only way in or out of both upscale housing developments.
"From a safety standpoint, we're in favor of the Winter Thicket cut-through, all the way to Route 108," said Paul Selnick, who lives in a home on Gaither Farm Road.
Jim Truby, who lives on Manor Lane, said his community favored the road several years ago when Gaither Hunt was being planned. "We thought it made sense for there to be two means of egress."
Former County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he wanted to build the road then too, when Gaither Hunt developers were willing to pay for it, and also pay for a traffic signal at the intersection with Route 108.
With a traffic light at the Route 108 entrance to the school land, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director, the road would allow residents a safer way out to the highway and a second access to their community.
But school officials said they spent months working out a delicate compromise with nearby residents leery of having students with persistent learning and behavioral problems attending class so close to their homes. If they have to redesign the site now, it would delay opening the $8.5 million, 250-seat building for months past the scheduled August 2002 target.
"The board knew the county's position on the need for that road three years ago. Nothing's changed, in our opinion," Rutter said.
School board member Stephen C. Bounds questions the validity of the safety issue.
"We don't want the road there. It serves no useful purpose. We know he [Rutter] wanted the road. There is no legitimate reason for him asking for the road that I can even imagine," Bounds said. Safety "is a red herring," he added, suggesting that aiding developers is the county's real motive.
"He couldn't be further from the truth. I'm very concerned about safety," Robey said.
County officials said the road would have no effect on development north of Gaither Farms, where nearly 2,000 acres of open land belonging to descendants of Charles Carroll of Carrollton runs north to Route 144, Frederick Road. Much, but not all, of that land is protected from development by agricultural preservation. Craig Cummings, the county's alternative education program coordinator, said delays in building the school will have a heavy cost in educational quality and hard cash.
The Alternative Learning Center will replace the aging Gateway school in Clarksville. With just 100 students, the small Gateway building lacks programs and facilities available in larger schools, such as foreign languages and science laboratories, Cummings said.