Ruling favors satellite campus

Court of Appeals decides Sojourner-Douglass building is not in violation of covenant

November 10, 2006|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,sun reporter

The Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday sided with the developer of Sojourner-Douglass College's satellite campus in Edgewater, ruling that the historically black college's facility will not have to be torn down and that its construction did not violate a neighborhood covenant. The opinion reverses a ruling made by the Court of Special Appeals.

"This particular legal victory closes a chapter in a long struggle," said civil rights activist Carl Snowden, a supporter of the school. "The decision, of course, is a welcome decision."

Snowden and other black community leaders had organized a protest last year on behalf of the college, expressing concern that opposition to the building from homeowners in a predominantly white neighborhood was racially motivated. The Edgewater community has had a history of racial tension. The homeowners rejected the charges.

In the end, the high court's ruling came down to semantics.

The 18-page ruling focused on how to interpret language in a neighborhood covenant signed in 1988 that sought to restrict development of the land.

The covenant reads, in part, that the 6-acre parcel at Routes 2 and 214 where the one-story building now stands "shall be undeveloped, except for educational facilities in conjunction with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education."

After parsing the definition of the word "develop," retired Judge John C. Eldridge, who sat in on the case, wrote for the court that the covenant should be interpreted in the least restrictive way.

The issue in dispute, according to yesterday's ruling, was whether the Board of Education was "required to have been involved in the planning, design or construction of the educational facilities" or whether it was enough for the board to have a relationship with the college once the satellite campus was open.

A county charter school - KIPP Harbor Academy - is housed in the building, and the school's president has testified that the public school system provides student teaching opportunities. Neither school was named in the suit.

Sojourner-Douglass College is based in Baltimore, but had a satellite campus in Annapolis, which it outgrew. The school moved to the new site, next to a complex that houses South River High and Central elementary and middle schools, in July 2005. The college caters to working adults.

The legal wrangling over the 16,000-square-foot, one-story building began in 2003 when the London Towne Property Owners Association sued the developer to block construction of the $2.5 million building. A Circuit Court decision found in favor of the developer and allowed the school to be built, but that decision was overturned by the Court of Special Appeals last year.

That interim appeals court found in favor of the homeowners, saying that because the county school board was not involved in the planning of the building, its construction violated the covenant. However, the Court of Special Appeals rejected razing the building. The developer then appealed to the state's highest court.

John Rhoads, president of the London Towne Property Owners Association, said he had not seen the court's ruling and could not comment on it. But he did say that no one wanted to see the building torn down once it was built, despite all the court maneuvering.

"What was being asked for was to affirm that the covenant had been violated," he said. "We have indicated from the very beginning that the developer ignored the covenant."

Attorneys for both sides could not be reached yesterday.

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