Community leaders criticize site chosen for new elementary

Loss of park space, traffic in Pikesville among worries

December 12, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

No one disputes that northwestern Baltimore County is in desperate need of a new elementary school to relieve classroom crowding.

But whether the school system picked the best site for the new Woodholme Elementary, on Mount Wilson Lane near Reisterstown Road, has become a source of controversy.

Community leaders, including the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, Pikesville Recreation Council and County Council President Kevin Kamenetz, have a host of problems with the location. They are concerned the school will exacerbate traffic problems on the narrow two-lane road with blind curves, and they don't want to lose coveted park space.

More important, they say, the schools most in need of relief are five miles away in Owings Mills, not Pikesville. They point out that Woodholme is surrounded by retirement and over-55 communities, a rabbinical college and a funeral home, not housing for families with school-age children.

Meanwhile, Owings Mills is growing so quickly that New Town Elementary, built for 707 children, opened in the fall of 2001 with 935 children enrolled.

The debate is, to a large degree, academic, since the school system is on track to break ground in March and complete the $14.2 million project in the fall of 2005.

School system officials and County Executive James T. Smith Jr. chose the site in Woodholme Park because the school system owned 10 of the 20 acres there. Building a school on land the system would have to buy could add years to the process.

"Our overcrowding problem is now," said school system spokesman Douglas J. Neilson. "We don't have years to be waiting."

Nadine Weinstein, president of the homeowners association at the nearby Cobblestone housing complex, argues that "quicker is not always better. When you behave hastily, you have to live with it forever and regret it."

Michel Snitzer, president of the Pikesville Recreation Council, called the school "a very poorly planned stopgap measure."

But school and county officials insist that, in the long term, the Woodholme site makes perfect sense. They point to a report by an outside consultant showing that all elementary schools in the northwestern part of the county - not just those in Owings Mills - will become crowded in the coming years.

"This is the first step in a solution for the whole northwest area," said Rita Fromm, executive director of planning and support operations, adding that the county will need to build another elementary school after Woodholme is complete.

Woodholme, which will be built for 720 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade, will fill a gap in an area without an elementary school in the immediate vicinity, Fromm said.

Renee Samuels, a spokeswoman for Smith, said the county has identified more than 200 school-age children living within a mile of the Woodholme site. And the county's traffic engineers have reviewed the plans and found no cause for concern.

School officials also point out that the community will have access to Woodholme's sports fields when school is not in session. The Pikesville Recreation Council has been using the land that will house the school for youth and adult soccer and lacrosse, and Snitzer fears the school "is going to put a crimp on programs we can provide."

Weinstein and other Woodholme neighbors have suggested that the school system give the parks department its 10 acres there in exchange for land for a school at Northwest Regional Park, which is much larger than Woodholme and closer to the most-crowded neighborhoods. Kamenetz, who represents the area, called that "a clever idea."

"It's very frustrating. We all want a new school to be built and we want it built quickly but we should still do it the right way."

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