Clearing the air on redevelopment

School officials uncertain how to plan for new students

December 13, 2009|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Howard school officials have told the County Council that the plan to redevelop central Columbia could leave them without good ways to deal with unexpected school crowding once the work is in progress. Meanwhile, the council received assurances of cooperation on the plan to renovate Merriweather Post Pavilion and integrate it with Symphony Woods.

The County Council discussed both topics last week, along with the dispute over affordable housing and issues involving environmental improvements and open space.

A final work session is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday at the county's temporary offices in the Ascend One building in East Columbia. Council members will then start drafting amendments to the two giant bills that would rezone Columbia's core for redevelopment during the next three decades, said Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. Final votes on the two measures are expected Feb. 1.

The testimony Monday evening at school board headquarters adds a new twist to the debate over the rezoning bills. The redevelopment plan would add up to 5,500 residences over 30 years.

Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager and General Growth Properties' lead official on the redevelopment plan, has said that with an average size of 1,100 square feet for the new homes downtown, the company does not expect a flood of new students. If necessary, Hamm has said, the county could re-establish a school at the former Faulkner Ridge Elementary building in Wilde Lake, which is now used for training.

School officials told the council they're uncomfortable with the situation.

"The basic dilemma is, we really don't have a way to determine the mix [of students] from this type of development," said Frank Aquino, the school board chairman.

Aquino said the board is not satisfied with the most often suggested remedy to potential overcrowding - pressing the former Faulkner Ridge Elementary building back into classroom service - or with using two vacant school sites in the Sunny Spring and Clary's Forest neighborhoods of West Columbia.

"We're fortunate to have the availability of these sites," Aquino told the council. But he expressed doubt whether the Faulkner Ridge site, on the edge of Town Center and a mile from The Mall in Columbia, is still appropriate for a school.

Schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin concurred.

Other school board members said the training being conducted at Faulkner Ridge is vital to school system success and that there might not be anyplace to move it.

"The board as a whole has not considered this," Aquino said.

Aquino and school planner Joel Gallihue said they want to work with the county to develop a plan to meet the needs created by Columbia's redevelopment.

School board member Allen Dyer said he wants to know that land for schools is "in trust" before downtown residential construction begins.

Hamm noted that a number of unused school sites had been donated to the county by Howard Research and Development when Columbia was being built.

"Would these sites be deeded back to GGP?" he asked.

Cousin suggested that land trades could be worked out.

Watson and Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, urged the school board to discuss the issue quickly, because amendments to the zoning bills must be prepared next month.

The council also talked Monday night about related needs for public safety and affordable housing in the town center and the county's wastewater treatment capacities without reaching any conclusions.

Fire Chief William Goddard said the Banneker Station on Little Patuxent Parkway at Twin Rivers Road is 40 years old and is the county's busiest fire station with more than 8,000 calls a year. The vast majority of those calls - 76 percent - are for medical emergencies, he said.

The location is great, he said, but the Fire Department needs a site nearly twice as large for a new 26,000-square-foot fire station, though adding a second story to the current building could suffice.

A site for a police substation is also needed, and Sigaty pointed out that the zoning bills say those locations must be selected before the first building permit is issued.

Although discount-priced housing for working families was discussed, no consensus for what the zoning should require was apparent. GGP has proposed that 20 percent of the new units be reserved for people with limited incomes - with half of them reserved for people with incomes of $80,000 to $120,000 a year and half for those earning less than $80,000.

But housing advocates and Stacy L. Spann, the county's housing director, want 25 percent of the new units reserved for affordable housing, with 15 percent of the new units set aside for people making less than $80,000 a year.

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