Site found for school

Announcement of elementary in northeast is delayed

Series of disappointments

Officials settle on county-owned land close to Route 100

Howard County

April 05, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Howard County school officials have selected a site for the new northeast elementary school after nearly a year of finding suitable locations, only to later discover all of them flawed in some way.

Officials had planned to announce selection of the site - about 21 acres near Route 100 - at tonight's school board meeting, but removed it from the agenda at the last minute because they want to negotiate for more land there.

"We want to do some further study of the site," said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations. "It's being postponed until the next meeting at the earliest."

Though the announcement was removed from the agenda, information about it was left in a packet that is distributed to board members and the media for the meeting.

The elementary school - the county's 38th - is scheduled to open in 2003.

The news that the district had finally narrowed its search to one, controversy-free site was thrilling to parents and activists in the northeast area of the county, which has been squeezing elementary students into crowded schools for several years.

"It's really nice to know that they have decided, finally," said Karen Cheng, the PTA president at Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City, which is several hundred students over capacity.

The northeast elementary school site has been a hot topic in the county since last spring, when rumors circulated that the school district might consider condemnation of a long-time family farm to build the school.

Amid public outcry, the school district backed off the small Ellicott City farm belonging to the Baugher family on New Cut Road, claiming it never intended to condemn the property because the process would take too long.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Bruce T. Taylor, part-owner of the largest undeveloped plot of land in Ellicott City, announced that he would donate some of his land, near the Baugher farm, to the school district.

Community members were relieved for several months until a contractor, hired by the school district to test that site, turned up potentially dangerous levels of methane gas on the property - which was near the old New Cut Landfill.

Environmentalists, parents and national PTA officials decried the idea of putting an elementary school near a landfill because they feared it would cause health problems for the children.

Time was growing short for the school district, and engineers promised that the location could be made safe for students with a few adjustments, but board members decided in November not to accept the site.

Most recently, the district found itself in negotiations once again with Taylor, who proposed a "land-swap" of a different site he owned and property owned by the county's Department of Public Works.

Ultimately, Cousin said, the district decided not to work with Taylor, opting to build on the county's land instead.

The county's Route 100 property encompasses 71 acres. Known as "the horse farm," it is split by the highway.

The land the district had considered for presentation to the board tonight is approximately 21 acres on the eastern side of Old Stockbridge Drive, south of the intersection of Route 108 and Montgomery Road.

School officials still don't have much time to settle on a site if the northeast school is to open on time. It takes about nine months to design a school and 15 to 18 months to build one, Cousin said.

Still, Cousin said he would like the county to agree to a larger parcel before he presents the proposal to the board for a vote.

As it stands, only about half of the 21 acres is usable, Cousin said. An elementary school requires about 15 acres.

"As long as it's done by May, we'll be in good shape," he said.

Although the board won't officially see the site proposal tonight, board member Virginia Charles said she believes the location is a good one.

"As far as I can tell, of the ones we've been given, it appears to look like the best site available," she said.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said the county would try to accommodate the school district's space needs, because the land is essentially free, costing the county no land acquisition fees.

"We'd try to make as much quality land as possible available to them to make them more attracted to the site," he said.

Some small hubbub has been made about the latest location, because it is very close to Waterloo Elementary School and has a gas line running through it that would have to be moved.

Merdon said moving the gas line would cost about $100,000.

And parent activist Courtney Watson, who has advocated for relief of crowding in the northeast, said the site's proximity to Waterloo is of no consequence.

"We have so many schools next to each other," she said. "The important thing is to get the school built to house the kids. I don't think it matters if the schools are next door to each other."

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