The fight over Howard County's plans to build a high school in Marriottsville was played out before the County Council at a public hearing last night as neighborhood residents opposed to the school's construction urged rejection of a seemingly obscure zoning bill.
Although construction workers have begun work on the school, rushing to ready it for an August 2005 opening, residents fighting the project are trying to block zoning variances for height and setback granted for the building.
The bill that they opposed last night would clarify the council's right to grant those variances for public projects.
Resident David R. Smith told the council that Bill 72, reaffirming the council's right, represents the "destruction of those protections" included in county zoning laws.
Allen Dyer, an attorney for the Citizens for Adequate School Facilities, a residents' group that opposes the chosen site, said that passing the bill would interfere with a court case and might cause more lengthy litigation.
But school system capital projects chief William Brown told the councilmen that not approving it would "impose a hardship on the school system" and "impose an unacceptable delay" in building the $48 million school off Old Frederick Road, near Mount View Middle School.
Chuck T. Lacey Jr., leader of the group, said the new bill "essentially abolishes the Howard County Zoning Code for government projects" and should be rejected.
Lacey argued in a letter to the council that the bill "enables the county to ignore the interests of neighboring property owners in the name of the public interest."
Last month, Lacey's group lost a court challenge of the County Council's granting of variances for the new high school.
Circuit Judge James B. Dudley ruled that Lacey's group was not entitled to question the council's actions on variances - but he also scheduled a hearing for Nov. 26 on standards the council should use in granting variances.
County officials said the zoning bill is intended to clarify a right the county has - to waive zoning requirements for roads, schools, bridges and other uses that are deemed to be in the public interest. School officials contend that they are not legally required to seek variances, but do it to cooperate more closely with the County Council.
A vote on the bill is scheduled for Dec. 1.
Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said the county has granted similar variances for schools "15 to 20 times" since 1985.
In a related matter, the council heard conflicting testimony on the school board's $115.1 million capital budget, which includes money to complete the high school project.
Brown read a statement from school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, calling the record request "a painfully difficult compromise" compared with the $150 million that O'Rourke had asked the board to approve.
The vast majority of the funding - 77 percent - is needed to add seats to a system that expects 4,000 new students by 2008, while 10 percent is to renovate older buildings and the rest is for program changes, such as all-day kindergarten, the statement said.
"Quality schools don't just happen," O'Rourke's statement said.
The superintendent was attending an award ceremony for a Howard County school principal in Washington.
David Fairchild of Marriottsville, who opposes the high school, warned that "taxpayers are alarmed at the escalation [in school construction costs] proposed over the last few years."
The school board's capital budget request is before the County Council to enable its submission to state officials in hopes of getting state money to help with the projects.
County Executive James N. Robey will decide in April how much he feels the county can pay for new schools. Then the council will get its turn.
Robey has said the county cannot afford the board's full request for funds. The executive is asking the county's General Assembly delegation to approve an increase in the real estate transfer tax to create a dedicated fund for school construction.