Site acquisition dispute could delay Elkridge elementary school

A lien dispute has stopped the Howard County school system from purchasing a site on Ducketts Lane, in Elkridge, that is planned to house a new elementary school in the overcrowded region.

Three closing dates — the most recent was Dec. 2 — have come and gone for the $2.64 million, 10-acre property.

Joel Gallihue, the system's manager of school planning, believes a solution can be reached and said it needs to happen soon.

"We wanted to start construction this spring," he said. "We wanted to own the property this winter. They're affecting us, right now, in a negative way. We can make up lost time (during construction) to some point … but we can't just stand by. When we sign a contract, we mean it."

The conflict exists between Ducketts Ridge LLC, which owns the site, and one of two lienholders, developer Barry Mehta. The property sellers owe money to the lienholder, and while the school system has offered a fair price, Gallihue said, the property isn't worth the amount of money the sellers owe. The amount of money in question is less than $200,000, Gallihue said.

If the system cannot purchase the site, officials will have to look elsewhere for a location for the new elementary school. The 600-seat school would relieve overcrowding at Bellows Spring, Deep Run and Elkridge elementary schools, and school officials had planned its opening for the 2013-2014 academic year. Other sites exist as options, Gallihue said, but presenting any of them to the Board of Education for approval would push the school's opening to 2014.

Gallihue said he and his staff would be taking direction from the board on how to pursue the matter. One option, he said, was going to court.

"They signed a sales contract, and they haven't followed through on the contract we signed," he said. "We can sue them. We can't be put in this highly unusual situation on a regular basis. I've lined up attorneys, and we'll use them if we need them."

The purchasing delay has also held up the approval of the Open-Closed Chart, which measures schools' population capacity, that was before the Howard County Council on Monday, Dec. 5. That vote was delayed until a deal with the sellers can be reached, Gallihue said.

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