The battle over Sojourner-Douglass College's plans to build a new campus in Edgewater could come to an end next month, when a Circuit Court judge is scheduled to hear opponents' arguments that the project would violate a covenant governing use of the 5.7-acre parcel.
The dispute over the campus has been racially charged, with some who support the college saying Edgewater residents don't want a historically black institution as their neighbor.
But opponents say they're simply trying to make sure the land is used as intended in the covenant, signed in 1988 by the former land owner and several community associations. The court hearing is scheduled for May 21.
"It's a pretty straightforward issue of whether this proposed use falls within the covenant," said Joseph Devlin, the Annapolis attorney who is representing opponents of the college.
The lawsuit, filed by the London Towne Property Owners' Association and Edgewater resident John Yannone, says that several community associations and the former property owner agreed that the land would remain undeveloped or be used by the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.
Of the racial tensions, Devlin said, "It's really been a nonissue in terms of our litigation."
But Carl O. Snowden, a civil right activist and an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens, said resistance to the college has to be viewed in the context of past racist incidents in southern Anne Arundel.
"Because of that history, I think many of the supporters of the college see this not as a land-use issue but [as] one of race," Snowden said. "But I think the college has been able to overcome that simply by following the law as required."
College officials say the dispute has not lessened their desire to move to the area.
"Certainly, we want to be there," said Charlestine Fairley, director of Sojourner-Douglass' Annapolis campus. "It's a great location, and it meets our needs."
Named for abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, the Baltimore-based school hopes to move its Annapolis campus off Old Solomons Island Road and into a new 16,000-square-foot building at Routes 2 and 214.
Fairley said the school picked the south Arundel site because the land was cheaper than in Annapolis. It was designated for educational use by the covenant, and it is owned by the college's current Annapolis landlord, Tom Schubert.
The college held a ceremonial groundbreaking in December 2002, launched a $5 million capital campaign to pay for the expansion and secured the county permits it needs to move forward. But what had been a smooth process grew rough last year when residents raised concerns about the project on several fronts.
Some complained of potential traffic problems, an issue that both sides eventually dropped. Others said the land was intended to be used only by the Board of Education. College officials negotiated an agreement that would allow the campus to be used for high-school tutoring and outreach programs. But that agreement produced more complaints from neighbors who said they did not want troubled students in the facility.
Snowden said questions about racism have been fueled by a history of incidents.
In 2000, then-schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who is black, received a death threat that was laced with racial epithets. Last year, racist graffiti was painted on a stairwell at South River High, the high school that serves Edgewater.