Mays Chapel residents raise questions about scarcity of land for parks, schools

Ginger and Jack Beste live near the Mays Chapel Park and use it regularly.  They are opposed to plans to build a school on the site.

For the second time in four years, there's a fight brewing in northern Baltimore County that raises questions about the scarcity of county-owned land for parks and schools.

The school system is poised to approve building an elementary school on land it has owned for decades in Mays Chapel, currently the site of a park. But residents in the community, largely made up of retirees, say they don't want to give up the green, open space near their residences.

With trailers lined up outside elementary schools in the area and enrollment projected to continue growing in the next five years, the system needs to build a school that can accommodate 700 students. The school board held a hearing Monday night that drew about 200 and is expected to vote Tuesday on the proposal.

Residents have formed a group called Save Mays Chapel Park and hired a lawyer. They contend that county officials haven't properly planned for the county's growing pains.

"The county has been blatantly lagging in putting in pocket parks and other neighborhood recreation areas for the communities," said Alan Zuckerberg, the residents' attorney. "I think the bragging by county officials that they haven't raised taxes ... that is well and good if you provide the proper amenities and facilities, and I don't think that has occurred."

Baltimore County isn't the only jurisdiction that needs more land for schools. In urban and rural areas, few large sites are for sale that have the right topography and access, said David Lever, head of school construction for the state.

"There is a dearth of sites that are suitable for schools. It is often very difficult to find the sites," Lever said.

The only other unused land that the Baltimore County school system owns in the central area is at Old Bosley and Pot Spring roads, but officials said the lack of wide roads and utilities would increase the cost there by 20 percent to 40 percent.

The hearing Monday proved contentious, with jeering and booing. School board president Lawrence Schmidt threatened to end the hearing early and asked security to escort one person out. Many of the speakers said the board was making a rushed decision without considering other alternatives.

Penny Noval, a Mays Chapel resident who lives next to the park, suggested several sites, including other county-owned parks. She also wants the county to investigate whether a new elementary school could be built next to Cockeysville Middle School.

Noval, who is a Realtor, said in an interview that buyers often tell her they want a house near a park. "We are somewhat deficient in parkland that is accessible to people on a daily basis," she said.

Carol Mills, a professor emeritus at Goucher College, said during the hearing that research shows "open space is important for the health and well-being of residents. ... People are more likely to exercise if they live near a park."

Resident Doris Delnegro said of the park, "It is our backyard, our side yard, our front yard. This is where we exercise ourselves and our pets, walk, play, meet neighbors, entertain our guests, rest, meditate and rejuvenate."

Schmidt lives in the area and said in an interview that he understands the issue for Mays Chapel residents. But, he said, "this site has been there to be used as a school for 25 years."

Many parents supported the plan Monday night, saying the overcrowding in schools has caused their children's learning to suffer.

Ronda Kunkel, the parent of two Pinewood Elementary students, said there are plenty of children who live near the proposed site. "There are at least three Pinewood buses that transport children west and north of Mays Chapel," she said, adding that one of her children would have a 40-minute bus ride home if she didn't pick him up.

Residents also had protested four years ago when the school system discussed building on the Mays Chapel site. The board decided instead to build West Towson Elementary on land next to an existing school for special education students.

Schmidt said a school in Mays Chapel would only take up to 10 acres, and the remaining land would remain the park. The county and school system each own 10 acres of the 20-acre property. If approved, the elementary on Padonia Road would open in August 2014.

He said the school system also will need land for another school by 2018. "We are going to continue to have issues in the northwest and central corridor. ... The Owings Mills area is getting very crowded," he said.

Despite the opposition, the county government will support a decision to move ahead with construction of a school in Mays Chapel, said Donald Mohler, chief of staff for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The need for land for schools has become an issue around the region. Anne Arundel County public schools spokesman Bob Mosier said that the last school built there was Nantucket Elementary in Crofton, which opened in 2008. "There is not a surplus of land to build schools on," Mosier said.

In Howard County, the system recently obtained two parcels to build an elementary and a middle school to alleviate crowding in Elkridge.

The school board has approved the elementary school, which will open for the 2013-2014 academic year, on a 10-acre site on Ducketts Lane. The purchase of that land had been held up until last month because of a dispute between the seller and a shareholder who had refused to release a lien on the property.

And a middle school is planned at Oxford Square on a 20-acre site at Coca Cola and Park Circle drives, land near a proposed rail cargo transfer station where an elementary school had originally been proposed. The middle school is scheduled to open in August 2014.

Meanwhile, some new housing developments planned for Elkridge had been on hold because growth-control laws in Howard curb development around schools that are 15 percent or more over capacity.

Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.