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Baltimore County executive says Towson High School’s landmark status makes replacement unlikely; advocates urge project forward

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. warned school board members that Towson High School’s historic landmark status may curtail their plans to replace the building, even as preservationists differed on how the project should move forward.

Olszewski sent a letter to the school system’s elected leaders, cautioning that “no plans for a new building at Towson can proceed without first having the issue of historical designation resolved.”

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The county executive delivered the letter Friday, days after school board members narrowly passed a budget plan calling for total replacements of both Towson and Dulaney high schools.

Whether to renovate or replace the two overcrowded, aging schools has long provoked competition for funding among Baltimore County communities and the elected officials who represent them. Those who favor renovation say it is the most equitable decision, freeing up funds to complete projects at more than 40 other schools across the county. Advocates for replacement say it is the common sense decision for the Towson and Dulaney communities that have waited years for their turn to construct new 21st century school buildings.

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Olszewski’s letter to the school board signals his support for renovation, which came at the recommendation of an outside consultant. The school system and county hired consulting firm CannonDesign to develop a plan for school construction over the next 15 years with an emphasis on spreading limited local and state funds across Baltimore County.

“Towson High School’s landmark designation protects the entire exterior of the historic portion of the building, not just the front facade as some have suggested,” Olszewski said in the letter. “As a result, completely replacing the original 1949 structure would first require the building to be removed from the landmarks list.”

The school system, according to the county executive, must request a “delisting” from the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would “determine that the original reasons for listing the property as a landmark no longer apply or are no longer relevant” and hold a public hearing.

The commission has “never before” agreed to remove a property from the landmarks list, Olszewski noted, adding that the school board should consider amending its budget proposal to include another solution that keeps the historic structure intact.

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Still, Phoebe Evans Letocha, who sits on the 13-member county landmarks preservation commission, told school board members Tuesday evening that the district should pursue funding for a replacement of Towson High School while the historic preservation issues are worked out. Evans Letocha delivered her comments as a Towson High parent and not as a representative of the commission, she said.

According to Evans Letocha, there is no mechanism to “delist” or remove a landmark that is validly listed. A landmark can be altered, but any exterior changes to the building would need to go before the commission. Acceptable changes could include requests to replace elements of the building that are beyond repair and nonfunctional, to create additions to historic structures or to remove “noncontributing” structures such as additions made to the building in 1953 and 1965, she said.

The commission also would need to see actual design plans for the Towson High building, which the county school system does not yet have, Evans Letocha said.

Further delaying the building and planning process “with political games over replacement versus renovation and addition shortchanges Towson students and the community,” she said.

Evans Letocha said any rebuild of Towson should be designed around the existing school’s landmark designation. An interior replacement and addition could incorporate exterior features that contribute toward its landmark designation, she said.

Brian Fischer, a board member of the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County, told school board members that he worried that plans for new construction had not taken into account the building’s historic nature. Fischer spoke on behalf of himself and not as a representative of any organization, he said.

“The school construction funds that are set aside, that are requested for a new school can and must be used for a comprehensive rehabilitation and addition to Towson High so that it can be expanded to meet our population and serve the needs of our community,” Fischer said.

The school board made no changes to their construction plans at its meeting Tuesday night.

Capital improvements to public school buildings are typically funded through a combination of state and county money. The board’s proposal will next head to the Maryland Interagency Commission on School Construction for consideration. Separately, county officials will consider funding for the projects based in part on how much the state decides to award.

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