Site of new school chosen

Elementary needed to relieve crowding in the Bel Air area

December 17, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

After an extensive search, Harford County officials have settled on a site for an elementary school that is intended to relieve crowding in the Bel Air area.

The 23-acre property on Vale Road near Red Pump Road north of Bel Air will not be the easiest to reach or the least costly on which to build, but county ownership makes it the most practical choice, officials say.

"This is not the best of sites, and only about half of it is developable," said Kathleen Sanner, school system director of planning and construction. "But it's workable and, more importantly, we own it."

The primary drawbacks of the site off U.S. 1 include the narrow frontage on Vale Road, a winding county arterial that will have to be widened, the added cost of building a small sewage treatment plant, the property's awkward shape (which Sanner compared with that of an hourglass) and its steep topography.

School officials expect to receive planning approval from the state early next year for a $12 million building that would house about 600 students. Construction funds would not be available until 2008, but if plans proceed, the school could open in 2009, officials said.

"If we have biddable documents by January 2008, we will have about 14 months to construct a school," Sanner said. "We are moving forward with the design, and we are still on a tight turnaround schedule."

The county has needed another elementary school for several years, but the lack of a building site stymied its efforts to get state funding.

"Developers tend not to sell land for a school, but the county often works a deal with a developer to set aside open space for a school," said Don Morrison, school system spokesman. "Land was given as a school site so we could build Abingdon and Forest Lake elementaries."

Officials purchased the Vale Road site, formerly a farm, about 15 years ago but were holding it in reserve until public utilities became available.

They could wait no longer. The school board has made another elementary school for Bel Air its top priority for state funding, but without a minimum 15-acre site, getting that money would be unlikely, education officials said.

"To be eligible for funding, we had to have a site to present to the state," Sanner said. "We can't design in the air."

In rapidly growing counties such as Harford, with nearly 41,000 school-age children, land acquisition is critical to the future of schools, officials said. Faced with soaring land prices and construction costs, projected population surges and the state's reluctance to fund new schools, Harford has decided to build schools in hopes of eventually getting reimbursement from the state.

"The value of property and willingness to sell at reasonable price for school have been difficult," Sanner said. "We are frustrated about not being able to find property for school construction. We have been asking for a new elementary school for years."

Harford is "forward-funding" Edgewood and Bel Air high schools, at a cost approaching $150 million. The state will reimburse the county with $9.9 million in fiscal year 2007, mostly for Patterson Mill and Joppatowne high schools. Harford has requested $58.8 million for fiscal 2008, more than triple its request this year.

Water and sewer lines are in the county's 10-year master plan for the area surrounding the Vale Road site, but the school will be built with a pumping station.

If the school opens in 2009, it will relieve crowding at five area elementary schools surrounding Bel Air. But based on current growth trends, seven years from now, the county will still be facing a deficit of classroom seats, as many as 1,000.

That projected deficit does not take into account the impending influx of students as a result of the nationwide military base realignment, known as BRAC. The county does not have firm figures on the numbers of students or where they would be living, officials said.

Unable to compete with commercial and residential developers for land, officials are forced to consider additions to buildings.

An impending expansion at Bel Air Elementary was the primary reason behind the school board's recent decision to demolish an aging vacant school building in downtown Bel Air. Razing the 1884 building, where hundreds of Harford families were educated, to make room for a parking lot and playing fields for the elementary was unpopular.

"It was a wrenching decision to tear down the Gordon Street building," Sanner said. "The board was just hemmed in. It had no other choice."

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