Developers prevented from building school in Odenton

When developers promised to build a $38 million, 700-seat elementary school in Odenton, Anne Arundel County officials embraced the proposal as a way to ease overcrowding in other area schools. They even tentatively gave the school a name: Evergreen Elementary.

But plans for the school have met an obstacle. The Forks of the Patuxent, the community in which the proposed development is located, refuses to lift a covenant that the land be reserved for adult communities.

Forks resident Patrick Padilla, 42, said residents who declined to lift the covenant requiring 55-and-older properties were concerned that a new housing development around the school would generate more traffic and crime without the age restriction.

"The developer's ideas and plans kept changing," said Padilla, who has lived in the area for about 12 years and sells fruits and vegetables at a stand on his 33-acre property daily. "Who knows if they're going to make good on their promises?"

Other residents believe a school is needed in the community.

Forks resident Jack Gumtow, 47, said, "If the schools are already overcrowded, this is a fairly decent school district within the Crofton area. I would rather them continually improve the school system rather than let it continually decline and overcrowd the schools."

Annapolis-based Koch Homes and Bethesda-based Classic Communities Cos. want to build a 2,000-home development called the Preserve at Two Rivers near Route 3 in Odenton. As part of negotiations with the county, they offered to build the school.

The promise of a school resonated with the county school board, which has a billion-dollar maintenance backlog.

Though some school board members voiced opposition to the development, the panel voted 5-4 recently to approve the concept for the school, clearing the way for further discussions on the matter.

The move ultimately requires approval from the County Council, but the school system announced plans to include the proposed school on Evergreen Road in its redistricting of Nantucket, Crofton, Crofton Meadows and Crofton Woods elementary schools.

Michael Leahy, attorney for the developers, said the Two Rivers project would take about 11 years to complete, with families moving in over time, and that the developers anticipated that about 370 students from Two Rivers would occupy the proposed school.

Gumtow is concerned about what might happen to the land. "You've got over a thousand acres back there. The county's going to do something with it. The homeowners don't own the land, Koch Homes and Classic Communities do. If you think through the process, what are you going to use it for?" he said.

Forks community association president Sue Meyer said in a statement, "The Two Rivers Development team and the association worked very hard to negotiate terms that would mitigate issues that would affect the community. After several general membership meetings, the majority of the [association] members felt the original covenants from 2006 should remain in place."

Meyer declined to comment further.

Forks is just off Route 3 in a heavily wooded area, with only a few homes per square mile. The area is well south of Evergreen Road, which begins off Route 3.

Leahy, who has been working with the school system on behalf of the developers, said, "If it makes sense to go forward with the community in some fashion, they made a commitment to the school, but obviously if they don't have a vehicle to finance it, it likely won't happen. But they're still exploring what their options are with regard to the community."

The school redistricting committee had been expected to explore the formation of a boundary and to designate a middle and high school feeder system for the school, pending the project's outcome. But according to Chuck Yocum, Anne Arundel schools specialist in student demographic planning, the committee declined this week to make a boundary for the proposed school.

"They didn't feel they had enough information to make an informed decision," he said.

He added that despite the uncertainty, "we are moving forward with the thought that the proposed Evergreen Elementary is going to be constructed. We will continue to do so until such time the development group who brought this proposal forward informs us that the school project is no longer a viable possibility."

Anne Arundel school board president Andrew Pruski said that the panel is "monitoring the recent decision" by Forks residents.

The new development is still slated for 55-and-over residents, and a website for the property says, "The Preserve at Two Rivers will offer a fully amenitized, serene environment to enjoy a maintenance-free lifestyle at 55 or better."

But the developers have sought to lift the restriction amid concerns that the slow economy has hurt the real estate market.

Lifting age restrictions to build schools is unique to Anne Arundel County in the area, as zoning officials in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Harford County and Howard County say they have no such exemptions.

In April, the developer of an 182-unit subdivision in Crofton, the Enclave at Reidel Pond, sought to have an age-restriction requirement lifted but first needed the school board to redistrict the land to serve three schools that were open to subdivisions: Crofton Meadows Elementary, Arundel Middle and Arundel High School. The school board voted in favor of the move.

Anne Arundel school officials said they met in August with Forks residents as well as others in the community. School officials said that not only would the proposed school address crowding concerns, it would include athletic facilities that could be used by county parks and recreation after school hours.

Still, some residents of other communities opposed the move as well.

Jeff Andrade of the nearby Piney Orchard community, who spoke in opposition to the move before the school board in August, argued that the system shouldn't include the proposed school in its plans until a final decision about the age restriction is made. He also said that Evergreen Road would be extended into the Piney Orchard community, disrupting existing traffic patterns.

"It's a lot for the average Joe Citizen to watch over their government when an issue comes up like that," Andrade said. "You expect that your public officials have your best interests there, and it's clear that that's not what's going on."

Asked about the system's inclusion of Evergreen Elementary in redistricting plans, Yocum said that "to keep things going in the right direction," the board approved the concept "under the assumption that the developer would eventually come into an agreement to build the new school."

Yocum, the schools specialist in demographic planning, said the proposed school could be built without the road extension.

Larry Tom, Anne Arundel planning and zoning officer, said that if the developers are not allowed to build now, the project will be placed on a six-year waiting list. If the development is still on the list at the end of six years, it can move ahead regardless of any restrictions in the area.

Tom said the code allows for a project to proceed after six years so the property owner is not penalized. He added, "But it's a long time to tie up your property."