The political fight over plans to redevelop downtown Columbia bubbled up at an annual school board breakfast with county and state legislators, prompted by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a critic of the project.
With Alan Klein, her favored candidate for County Council in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary watching quietly, Bobo asked why the board is considering a school site in Elkridge as part of a rezoning while not reserving a site for a possible new school for the proposed 30-year Columbia redevelopment. That project is to include up to 5,500 residences, along with nearly 6 million square feet of retail, office, hotel and cultural space. Incumbent Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, whom Klein hopes to replace, sat at the main table with all four of her council colleagues who unanimously approved the Columbia plan, but she made no comment. The event also attracted eight of Howard's 11 state legislators.
County Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Elkridge, said the zoning board approved the Elkridge mixed-use project near the Dorsey MARC train station where a developer has offered a free school site, and that school board members haven't decided whether they want it. They can reserve a site in downtown Columbia whenever they feel one might be needed, she said.
"It's two different processes," she said.
School board Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles said classroom crowding is projected to worsen in Elkridge and the a new school needs to tthere to open by August 2013. "Columbia doesn't have a single piece of this change [built] in it yet. We don't know what's going to come in first, or whether it will take five years or 10 years or 15 years."
Bobo was undeterred, however, arguing that new residences will be the first things built in Columbia, and "it's not going to take 30 years," despite the currently slow housing market. She said after the meeting that "I'm not at all satisfied with the answer." She argued that the downtown project will quickly consume the roughly 250 acres involved and then a school site will be impossible to find.
"We're setting ourselves up for having to bus these kids out of downtown," she said, noting that it would contradict the idea of a walkable downtown.
But Giles said Bobo's ideas might produce the same outcome, which is why the board rejected them. The zoning gives the board the ability to study school needs in downtown Columbia before the first building permit is granted, which would allow the board to review the enrollment projections closer to actual construction. The board then has the right under the approved plan to reserve a school site when 10 percent of new residences are built. The site must be provided before a quarter of the units are completed, she said.
If Bobo's idea were followed, she said, "we could end up building something down here and all the kids are out here," she said, gesturing.
The board did not want to reserve a school site so early and then find that if a school is needed, the students for it would be living in buildings too far away for them to walk to class.
Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican who represents the western county, said parents in West Friendship have a very different worry. They fear their school will be closed for a lack of students. While enrollments are growing in the county's more affordable eastern end, large new school buildings in Dayton and Glenwood have scores of empty seats, school officials said, because of the effects of the recession. School board member Frank Aquino said there's no immediate plan to close West Friendship Elementary, and any move in that direction would require a drawn-out public process.
School Superintendant Sydney L. Cousin said the board will be considering boundary changes and additions to help relieve crowding, but a new elementary school needs to open in the Elkridge area by 2013 and a new middle school by 2015. It is difficult to find sites for schools in the already developed U.S. 1 corridor, he said, but the board is always searching.
Giles noted the board owns the former Faulkner Ridge Elementary building in Wilde Lake near downtown, along with two undeveloped elementary sites nearby, but Bobo has argued that they are not in the Town Center area itself.
Bobo is helping Klein, also a skeptic of the General Growth Properties redevelopment plan, to run against Sigaty, whom they both supported four years ago. Sigaty has active backing from County Executive Ken Ulman, who has produced literature featuring them both and is hosting phone banks of volunteers at his Columbia campaign headquarters, partly to help Sigaty.