Ruling clears way for college

Sojourner Douglass' plan for new branch gets OK

Case carried racial overtones

Neighbors said project violated land-use covenant


August 04, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel Circuit judge has rejected a neighborhood's claims that plans by historically black Sojourner Douglass College to build a new branch in Edgewater violate a covenant governing land use in the area.

The decision was delivered by Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth on Monday, more than two months after the court hearing on the case. Silkworth wrote that the college's planned branch conformed with the covenant, which says the 6-acre parcel in question must be used for education facilities in conjunction with the county Board of Education.

"We're delighted to have the opportunity to continue providing services to Anne Arundel County in a state-of-the-art facility," said Charlestine R. Fairley, director of Sojourner Douglass' Annapolis campus. "We certainly had outgrown our old building."

The dispute over the campus was at times racially charged, with supporters of the college speculating that residents of the predominantly white neighborhood in Edgewater did not want Sojourner Douglass as a neighbor. The ruling clears the way for the college to move from Annapolis to the planned branch in Edgewater.

"This is a clear indication that the community is changing and that Edgewater, which used to be a very rural community, is becoming more diversified," said Carl O. Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens and a longtime civil rights activist in the county. "I think all parties will respect this decision."

`We'll be accepted'

Fairley said she had no reservations about building in a community that resisted the college.

"It's an ideal spot," she said. "I feel that once we get there, we'll be accepted."

The legal argument between neighbors and the college focused on ambiguous language in the covenant governing development in the sprawling South River Colony subdivision. The covenant was negotiated by the developer and neighborhood groups 16 years ago.

The London Towne Property Owners' Association and Edgewater resident John Yannone said they filed the court action to protect the agreement.

The neighbors' attorney, Joseph Devlin, argued that the Board of Education played no role in developing the land. He said there was the appearance of a relationship between the college and the board but no actual relationship.

Neither the plaintiffs nor Devlin could be reached for comment yesterday.

College officials and their prospective landlord, Earl P. Schubert, argued that they met the conditions by arranging to open the proposed campus for Board of Education use during the day.

Silkworth agreed with the college, writing in his decision, "It is undoubtedly clear that the college and the Board of Education have a longstanding relationship of working together to educate individuals in Anne Arundel County."

Racial incidents

The dispute raised memories of past racial incidents in Edgewater.

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 predominantly white Mayo area of Edgewater to predominantly black Annapolis Middle School while the Edgewater school was being repaired.

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

Named for abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, the Baltimore-based college plans to move its Annapolis satellite campus out of leased space on Old Solomons Island Road and into a 16,000-square-foot building at Routes 2 and 214.

Growing pains

The private college, with four branches in Maryland and one in the Bahamas, has outgrown its Annapolis location, school officials say. 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 college had originally planned to move to its new campus in January. But Fairley said that after the long wait for a court decision, she is not sure when construction will be completed.

"I'm just looking forward to moving forward," she said.

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