The legal jousting to determine whether the new home of Sojourner-Douglass College's Anne Arundel County campus will be torn down will move to the state's highest court today.
The Maryland Court of Appeals will hear the attorney for an Edgewater community argue that a 6-acre woods was turned into a school and parking lot in violation of a covenant, and hear the attorney for the developer contend that's not so.
While the legal issues have danced from courthouse to courthouse since 2003, students have gone from corridor to classroom all academic year. Construction was begun and finished while the case wound its way through legal channels, amid opponents calling first for it not to be built, then asking that it be removed.
Officials of the Baltimore-based college and the charter public middle school to which it sublets space say they are focusing on the classroom work, not whether a judge ultimately may set the stage for razing the one-story building.
"We are not waiting. We had 170 students in the fall," said Dr. Charlestine Fairley, who directs the Edgewater campus of Sojourner-Douglass.
"Every day we are getting more people walking in. We've never stopped recruiting."
The historically black college that caters to working adults operated an Annapolis campus for more than a decade. But when it outgrew its rented quarters, it arranged for the developer to construct a $2.5 million campus. The lease is for 15 years.
Fairley said the college plans to buy the campus once the court case ends - she hopes, favorably for the school.
Neither the college nor KIPP Harbor Academy, the charter school, are parties in the lawsuit.
At the heart of the dispute is the meaning of a 1988 covenant signed by three civic groups and the developer of the South River Colony planned community. The county government was not part of that pact, which says the land at the corner of Route 2 and Route 214 must remain "undeveloped except for educational facilities in conjunction with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education."
The developer, Earl Schubert, maintains that the cooperative relationship between the college and public schools, which includes student-teachers, meets the terms of the covenant. Opponents say the phrase means the school system is to have a long-term vested interest in the development of that land.
The land at issue sits next to where the county school system placed a complex that includes South River High and Central elementary, middle and special schools.
The 30-year covenant expires in 2018.
"The covenant was entered into because the property was not to be developed at all," said John Rhoads, president of the London Town Property Owners Association, the only one of the associations to sign onto the lawsuit. "The property was to be left green. The covenant was written so that if the Board of Education wanted to expand the school, it could, and the association would not stand in its way."
Rhoads said his group is concerned about upholding the terms of the covenant. Communities got some concessions from developers in exchange for not opposing the South River Colony project and want assurance that the covenant as they understood it is binding, he said.
There may be other parcels of land in South River Colony that could be developed under county law except for the covenant, Rhoads said. As the Edgewater area grows from rural villages to bustling suburbia, communities are entering other covenants with developers in the belief that they are enforceable, he said.
The issue, he said, is not with Sojourner-Douglass or with KIPP, but with the developer.
By tying construction on the site to involvement by the county Board of Education, the covenant effectively requires a public commitment that says for many years, the site will be a school, the association's lawyer says.
"That is why the covenant required the Board of Education - as a stakeholder," Joseph F. Devlin said. "They would have placed a stake in the ground saying, `We are looking for a long-term relationship.'"
Absent that, he said, there's no guarantee, he said. The college could relocate, or the college and the public school system's cooperative agreement could collapse, or the property owner could choose to rent to someone else.
The dispute has taken on racial undertones. The communities are mostly white. The college and KIPP Harbor Academy are mostly black. Opponents say race has not been the issue, that the dispute is not with the schools but with the developer who took a risk by building while the case was on appeal, Devlin said.
James C. Praley, lawyer for the developer, Schubert, said opponents delayed construction for nearly two years by fighting grading and other permits, and filing the lawsuit. The structure does comply with the language of the covenant, he said.
"We've invited the association to tell us what might make the project more palatable to them. All along, their attorney, Mr. Devlin, said no, they just don't want it built," Praley said.