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Loch Hill residents oppose move to 6th District

Fears of school redistricting spur strong response

By Jon Meoli, jmeoli@tribune.com

4:11 PM EDT, August 7, 2011

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Loch Hill residents are hoping for a last-minute switch that will keep them in the Fifth District after they found themselves on the wrong side of a redistricting line drawn by the county redistricting commission.

Residents of the 153-household neighborhood spoke out against a proposed move from the 5th District to the 6th District at a public hearing before the County Council Monday night, a move that residents feel will leave them underrepresented in the council and put their standing in the Towson community in jeopardy.

Bordered on the north by the Glendale community, on the east by Loch Raven Boulevard, on the south by Regester Avenue and the west by Overlook Park, Loch Hill identifies with its neighbors to the west — Idewylde, Anneslie and Stoneleigh — because Loch Raven Boulevard represents a divide to the east.

"All of our connection to the community is with Stoneleigh, Idlewylde, and Anneslie," Ed Smith, board member and past president of the Loch Hill Community Association, said. "We're highly dependent on the connection to the Towson community. We make it a point, even though it's a significant expense, to maintain our part in the Greater Towson Council of Community Organizations, to take advantage and maintain our connection to the larger communities. In the same regard, the person that represents Towson is who we need to represent us."

At a public hearing, Smith, and neighbors Antony Gross, Allysha Lorber, John Eichhorn, Patty Nicholls, Jim Cosgrove, and Jennifer Falter delivered impassioned pleas to keep their neighborhood a part of Towson.

"I feel like I live in Towson," Lorber said at the hearing. "I shop in Towson. My kids go to school in Towson. I walk and bike all over Towson. I'm a part of Towson. The redistricting plan effectively takes my voice and my neighbors' voice out of what happens in our community."

Board member Nichols said "it makes no sense" for Loch Hill to have a different council representative than its neighbors.

"We have issues that are inextricably linked to our contiguous neighbors, and to be represented by a separate councilman from our neighbors just flies in the face of reason," Nichols said.

Many residents lamented the lack of connection they would feel to their new district.

Gross, the current Loch Hill Community Association president, said that Loch Raven Boulevard is a four-lane divide between the Loch Hill and the communities with which it is now being grouped.

Smith said the separation from Towson would make Loch Hill "a small pea" in the eastern portion of the county.

Even the manner in which Gross learned about the redistricting speaks to Loch Hill's relationship with fellow communities. He received the heads-up from the president of the Idlewylde Community Association, who saw that their neighbors were on the wrong side of the redistricting line.

Outside of the community aspect, Smith said that principal among the community's concerns is their standing in the public school system that allows Loch Hill residents to attend Stoneleigh Elementary, Dumbarton Middle and Towson High schools.

"That's always a top concern in the community," Smith said. "[The school system] really is the prime reason that any of us purchase homes in this area. As older folks move out, we have younger families moving in, and I'm sure that's a large reason for it."

But with overcrowding in the county school system — especially Stoneleigh Elementary, which will be more than 30 percent over capacity for the coming year — Gross is concerned that a shift in council districts could make Loch Hill an easy target for school redistricting.

"A lot of the community feels that with the schools being overcrowded, it will be their justification to eventually move us from there as well," Gross said. "We can't let that change happen. Our community is the community that it is because of the schools."

Smith said that when he purchased his home in the area, he did so because the school district would protect the value of his home.

Since Monday's meeting, the community has been in contact with Marks, who understands the community's concerns.

"I like representing the Loch Hill neighborhood, and would certainly prefer that it remains in a Towson-oriented district," Marks said in an email Wednesday. 

But the other changes to Marks' district—most notably the unification of Perry Hall and an addition from the northeast part of the county—already make the 5th District the largest in the county, and because a district cannot increase more than five percent of its population in the redistricting process, Marks will need to find a creative solution to the problem.

"Unfortunately, Loch Hill is located in a precinct that stretches from the Country Club of Maryland to Loch Raven Boulevard, and adding that back to my district would take the district's population beyond the legal threshold," Marks said.

Both Smith and Marks mentioned the possibility of splitting the precinct, something that Smith said would be "just a drop in the bucket in terms of population added to the 5th District."

At Monday's meeting, Marks asked Ed Criser, commissioner of the redistricting commission, why the commission didn't split precincts in the first place.

Criser said the commission didn't even consider splitting precincts because it was "a pet peeve" of his. As a public servant who has worked at polling stations, he noted there are complications organizing elections in split precincts.

"I thought it was a lot cleaner if we kept precincts together, basically," Criser said.

Criser could not be reached for further comment.

Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who represents the 6th District that Loch Hill would be moving to, said that she doesn't see the neighborhood's outcry as a slight to her or her leadership.

When she took a look at the redistricting map, even she was struck by just how far away Loch Hill was from her home in Middle River.

However, after the meeting, Bevins checked back with the redistricting commission and was told there were no testimonies from Loch Hill residents on file from the public input meetings held by the commission. It was there, not at the public hearing after the recommendations were made, when residents voices could best be heard.

But now that the recommendations have been made, it's up to the council to make changes where it sees fit. Smith says he believes Marks will do whatever he can to keep them in the 5th District.

"It's really going to be up to the other council members to see whether they go along with it," Smith said.