Dispute simmers between school and its neighbors

September 23, 2006|By Nick Shields | Nick Shields,Sun Reporter

To some residents in the Chatterleigh neighborhood of Baltimore County, the Baltimore Lutheran School's new facility is a tent, an unsightly and unwelcome edifice that sprang up with little warning behind older buildings on the campus.

To school officials, the structure provides much-needed space for athletic events and practices. They call it a field house.

For the two sides, that was just the beginning of the dispute.

Since the school constructed the building in May, neighbors have complained that it was built without proper government approval. They have even picketed -- with some neighbors wearing clown suits to point to the facility they say resembles a circus tent. One man opposed to the building was arrested for trespassing on school property.

The dispute has reached a point where school officials have broken off discussions with neighbors, and a county councilman has gotten involved.

"I guess when two sides get their dander up, this is what happens," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, who attempted to broker a deal in June to resolve the issue, but the dispute continued.

Now McIntire is crafting legislation that would bring the aesthetics of a building into the equation when the county considers development plans.

Baltimore Lutheran, a middle and high school with 500 students, has been on Concordia Drive since it opened in 1965. The school owns 24 acres near the Beltway, not far from Cromwell Bridge Road. There are four educational buildings, including the new facility.

The $1 million field house peaks at about 52 feet high and is 161 feet long. The structure is mostly white, with green trim near its base, and it was built large enough so athletic events and practices could occur simultaneously.

The campus is in a neighborhood of two-story brick homes and middle-class families. Some neighbors said they remember when they volunteered to pick up trash around the school.

But that changed in May when the facility was built.

"I think it's hideous and much too tall," said Mike Constantine, a Chatterleigh resident.

Even though neighbors have questioned whether the building was constructed to code, Donald T. Rascoe, deputy director for county permits and development management, said the structure does not violate any county regulations.

The school has also rented the facility to area recreation councils, which neighbors said have brought strangers to the community and cars blocking driveways.

"I really worry about my kids being outside," said resident Rhonda Memphis, whose house is across from the school. But she hopes the community and the school find common ground soon.

However, the feud escalated last month during a community protest against the facility.

W. Craig Kenney, a freelance photographer, was taking pictures of the protest when he crossed onto the school property and was approached by a county police officer, according to charging documents. The officer asked him to leave, and when Kenney didn't immediately do so, he was arrested, court papers show.

Kenney contributes photographs to a Web site that was created by opponents of the facility. According to the Baltimore Lutheran Info Web site, its mission is to hold the school "accountable for the consequences of this growth." The Web site is not affiliated with the school.

"This was clearly an attempt to intimidate and retaliate because of my association with the Web site," Kenney said of his arrest.

The school sent a letter to area residents a few days after Kenney's arrest, stating: "The Board of Directors has thus determined that further dialogue is a waste of time, energy and resources and that perhaps, when the personal attacks, venomous website content, picketing calculated to disrupt operations, threats of litigation and other vicious words and deeds of certain of your constituents have ceased, our dialogue may resume."

School officials said that what's been lost in the dispute is the purpose of the facility and its impact on the students.

In past years, students were forced to share one gym, which meant waiting for other teams to finish games or practices. Sometimes, students had to wait so long that they didn't get home until 10 p.m., school officials said.

"We are decreasing the activity on the campus for neighbors by having everybody clear out on most days by 7," said Leslie Heubeck, a school spokeswoman.

McIntire said his preliminary plan for a county advisory board would give the group authority to consider aesthetics when new buildings are proposed.

"We don't have that now, so Baltimore Lutheran is in compliance with the law," he said. "But it would be difficult to say at this juncture that Baltimore Lutheran School adds to the appearance and ambience of Chatterleigh."

He hopes to present his idea for an advisory board to County Council members in about two months.

"It is not an attractive thing in my opinion," McIntire said of the field house. But he added, "now beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

nicholas.shields@baltsun.com

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