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Rodgers Forge residents rally for trees

Angry Rodgers Forge residents are rallying around nine 100- to 250-year-old trees that could be cut down during expansion of Dumbarton Middle School. Neighbors gathered with signs in support of the trees June 27 despite assurances the day before that the trees will be spared.

One tree on the 20-acre property, a Cedars of Lebanon at the rear entrance to the school, is said to have been planted by Johns Hopkins himself and grown from a seed from Bethlehem.

The design for the $27.5 million addition and renovation planned for the 58-year-old school has somehow morphed into a "pave-fest" of the park-like setting that surrounds it, said Stu Sirota, president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association.

The design calls for "the needless destruction of the precious limited open space that is incredibly important to the community," said Sirota, a principal in a consulting practice focused on sustainable community design.

Councilman David Marks secured a stay of execution on June 26 from Baltimore County Public Schools and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The county executive is "very concerned." and "actively working with Board of Eduction officials on a more positive outcome," according to an e-mail sent by an aide. Marks said he wanted a robust tree canopy to be there for generations, and to preserve as much as possible of the school's park-like setting.

"It's a gorgeous part of Towson," he said, "a distinctive part of the Rodgers Forge neighborhood."

Sirota said the trees are part of a community larger than Rodgers Forge. The Dumbarton Middle and adjoining Rodgers Forge Elementary properties are centrally located in a neighborhood of nearly 1,800 row homes and offer the only open space in a densely populated area, according to Kevin Schwab, who lives in Yorkleigh.

"To the families of Rodgers Forge, Gaywood, Cedarcroft, Anneslie, Stoneleigh, Wiltondale and Yorkleigh, this is not school property," he said. "This is our backyard."

As the youth baseball commissioner for the Towson Recreation Council, Schwab has helped to spearhead an effort to get BCPS to change its design to minimize the negative impact on the property.

He helped organize last Friday's demonstration during which dozens of adults and children gathered at the Cedars of Lebanon tree.

"It's pretty apparent that what people want is to protect their open space and not cover everything with concrete," State Sen. Jim Brochin said at the gathering. "There's no need to take those trees down."

Virtually nobody objects to the Dumbarton Middle School project itself, which would make the school compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, provide air-conditioning, bring its interior up to 21st century standards and improve traffic flow and safety.

It's the design they find objectionable, including the removal of trees, an expanded rear parking lot and a two-lane loop road capable of carrying 15 or 16 buses that would encircle Dumbarton House, a Greek Revival mansion built in 1820 that shares the property with the middle school and now houses the Baltimore Actors Theatre Conservatory.

Headmaster Gene Anderson has received assurances from BCPS officials, but the prospect of "15 or 16 big yellow buses emitting noise Monday through Friday and vibrations in close proximity to the concrete foundation of a nearly 200-year-old building" concerns him, he said.

Sirota said the Rodgers Forge Community Association, local design professionals and more than 300 residents have signed a petition opposing the pavement expansion.

"There was no proactive approach whatsoever," said RFCA board member Michael Bayer, a project manager and planner for an environmental consulting firm.

"You can't do things in a vacuum," said 42nd District Del. Steve Lafferty. "Nobody disputes the importance of education, but the system doesn't respect the importance of the communities in which the schools lie. People move into communities because of schools; it's not an independent system that can disregard communities."

Baltimore County Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Mychael Dickerson said, "We have some concerns about the way information has been shared with the public. We want to improve that."

In an email sent June 27, Kevin Smith, BCPS's chief administrative and operations officer, said he was aware of the Dumbarton project and plans to meet with community leaders as well as staff to determine the exact course moving forward.

"Please understand, he said, "that we are sensitive to preserving as many trees as possible and will not needlessly remove any. If it is necessary to remove any trees, we will share the rationale in advance."

New information on the Dumbarton Middle project will be posted by the end of Tuesday, July 8, on the BCPS website, http://www.BCPS.org.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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