With a pressing need to build a new elementary school to relieve overcrowding near Owings Mills, the Baltimore County school board will soon have to decide whether it wants to locate the new building on land with an underground gas pipeline.
The board voted Tuesday night to accept a donation of 6.8 acres from a developer, but not before a contentious discussion in which two board members questioned whether enough is known about the risk of putting children in a school next to a pipeline.
The school would not be built on top of the gas pipeline. It would run under playing fields and about 45 feet from the school, according to Michael Sines, chief operating officer for the school system.
"I personally do not believe this is a safe site for a school," said David Uhlfelder, vice president of the school board. He said he had been concerned about the site for two years and believed the risks were unnecessary when other options could be found.
But board President Lawrence Schmidt disagreed, saying gas pipelines run throughout the county. "If you have gas, you have a line running under your house," Schmidt said. "I have no reservation about taking this parcel."
School superintendent Dallas Dance said the county needs 1,400 more seats for students in the area. Two elementary schools — Woodholme and New Town — are each 200 students over rated capacity.
"This is not a done deal that the school will be built there," Dance said.
Dance and Sines encouraged the board to accept the donation, saying that if they delayed, they risked not being able to open a new school in September 2015. Accepting the land, which is being given free, will allow the school system to continue to research the safety issues.
Sines said in an email that research thus far amounted to internal discussion among school system staff and "professionals serving the developers" but that staff would continue to look into safety issues.
The land donation by Ballard Family LLC near Lyons Mill Road and Owings Mills Boulevard in northwest Baltimore County would not be large enough by itself for a school, but it could be combined with another 10 acres to provide sufficient property, according to Sines. The school system requires 15 to 20 acres for an elementary school.
One school board member raised concerns that the gift might actually be a way for Ballard to meet a requirement before constructing new development in the area.
"Is this a way for him to get approval to build a lot of houses that people don't want built?" asked Michael Collins. He also suggested new housing would just increase the number of school children in a part of the county where overcrowding is already an issue.
The adjacent Ballard Green development, which includes retail offices and about 500 town houses and condominiums, was approved in January 2011 after reviews by county agencies and the County Council, said Arnold Jablon, director of the department of permits, approvals and inspections, in a telephone interview Wednesday.
To gain permission to build, the developer was required to benefit the community in some way. That "public benefit" was the donation of land to the school system, which has been discussed for years, Jablon said.
"My assumption is that this was not a secret to the school board," he said.
Jablon said county officials would not have approved the development if they had not believed it was safe to build a school next to the gas line.
At Tuesday's meeting board member Edward Gilliss suggested the board accept the donation and put the property into its land bank. If the board ultimately decides not to use it, the land could be swapped or sold later for another parcel.
The vote was 11 to 1, with Uhlfelder the only member opposed to accepting the donation.