Court to hear college dispute

Opponents say campus of Sojourner-Douglass is not acceptable for site

Racially charged argument

Suit claims 5.7-acre tract is for county schools' use

April 18, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The battle over Sojourner-Douglass College's plans to build a 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 original 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 original property owner agreed that the land would remain undeveloped or be used by the county Board of Education for an unspecified purpose. That agreement was part of a series of covenants designed to govern the land in and around the vast South River Colony development.

Of the racial tensions, Devlin said, "It's really been a non-issue in terms of our litigation."

College officials also have played down the race issue. But Carl O. Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens and a civil rights activist, 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 satellite campus out of leased space on Old Solomons Island Road and into a new 16,000- square-foot building at the busy intersection of Routes 2 and 214.

The private college, with four branches in Maryland and one in the Bahamas, has outgrown its Annapolis location. When it came to the area in 1993, it had 10 students. Now it has about 200.

The school's curriculum focuses on management skills and community development, with classes offered to adults on evenings and weekends. The average student age is about 35, and most are returning to earn a bachelor's degree they never completed.

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 school would construct a 12-classroom, single-story building with about 100 parking spots.

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 was scheduled to go before the county Board of Appeals last month, but both sides compromised and the appeal was dropped.

Others said the land was intended to be used only by the Board of Education. College officials negotiated an agreement with the board that would allow the campus to be used for high-school tutoring and outreach programs during the day.

But that agreement produced more complaints from neighbors who said they did not want troubled students funneled through the facility. A flier circulated in the neighborhood warned that 83 percent of students at another county alternative school had criminal records.

Snowden said questions about racism have been fueled by a history of incidents in the Edgewater area.

In 2000, then-schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who is black, received a death threat that was laced with racial epithets. The letter-writer objected to Parham's plan to send children from the Mayo area of Edgewater to predominantly black Annapolis Middle School while the Edgewater school was being fixed.

In 2001, an African-American couple backed out of purchasing a home in the London Towne area of Edgewater after they found racist graffiti on the home.

Last year, racist graffiti was painted on a stairwell at South River High, the high school that serves the area.

Fairley said Sojourner-Douglass has never faced such resistance when moving into other Maryland communities. She said she expected to be moved into the new building by now.

"We certainly need to be there," she said. "I had no idea we would be involved in this sort of entanglement."

"I believe these issues will become moot shortly after the college is built, because people will find that the college is a good neighbor," Snowden said.

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