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Conservationists ask Howard County to swap park land for new high school

Howard County is considering the Rockburn Branch Park site, at the intersection of Landing and Montgomery roads in Elkridge, as an option for High School 13 .
Howard County is considering the Rockburn Branch Park site, at the intersection of Landing and Montgomery roads in Elkridge, as an option for High School 13 .(Google Maps screenshot)

Local conservation organizations are advocating that the county replace land at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge if the Board of Education decides to use at least half of the 90-acre parcel for a new high school.

Rockburn Branch Park is one of two sites proposed for Howard County’s 13th high school; a second site is on Mission Road in Jessup.

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Patapsco Heritage Greenway president Grace Kubofcik and Howard County Conservancy executive director Meg Boyd sent separate letters to County Executive Allan Kittleman, County Council members and school officials to ask the county to replace any park land taken for the site of the new high school, a process used in 1991 when the site was selected for Rockburn Elementary.

The land where Rockburn Elementary was built was originally purchased by Recreation and Parks with funds from the Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Program Open Space. The program requires the department to use the land for outdoor recreation. If a buyer purchases the land for a different purpose, they are required to replace it with the same amount of acreage or more elsewhere.

Recreation and Parks Director John Byrd said the county replaced the Rockburn Elementary land with about 22 acres in Dayton. Since the potential High School 13 site was not purchased with Open Space funds, he said, the county has no obligation to replace the Recreation and Parks-owned land.

Howard County’s Board of Education has its first public hearing to hear the community’s thoughts and concerns about Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano’s redistricting recommendations earlier this month.

“Open space is becoming more and more limited in the eastern part of the county as population grows,” Byrd said. “I think it’s important to maintain as much as we can in the Patapsco Watershed. It would be worthwhile to find replacement property. I’m not sure if it is possible, but I don’t think anyone wants to remove an environmental area without having an option.”

The school system could use at least half of the site, which Kubofcik says currently protects the edges of Patapsco Valley State Park’s Avalon area. The area is heavily forested, she said, with several miles of trails used for hiking and mountain biking as well as streams and wildlife.

Kubofcik said Elkridge is experiencing “rapid, high density residential growth” with “little to no recreational benefits.”

“We would want the commitment from the county that at least a similar-sized site or an accumulation of sites could be used as park land for recreational uses for the residents of Elkridge,” Kubofcik said. “You can’t build within wetlands; you have to go over them. All of that is feasible, but you need more acreage to go over the wetlands.”

In her letter to county officials, Kubofcik says replacement land should be within or directly adjacent to the Green Infrastructure Network – the county’s ecologically significant areas – and within the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area. The land would serve a variety of recreational uses, she said, such as a Thomas Viaduct viewing area or a kayak and canoe launch pad into the Patapsco River.

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Walking and biking paths could also be established between Furnace Avenue and the river, connecting to existing paths between the state park and the BWI Trail.

“We know there is a need for an Elkridge high school, so we’re not opposing if this site ends up being selected,” she said. “There needs to be an open process about how you do that.”

Although the conservancy doesn’t have a position on the new high school’s location, Boyd said replacing park land “needs to be part of the equation and discussion.”

Boyd explained in her letter how the conservancy’s biodiversity program, Bioblitz, works with students to identify species in the area and uses the Rockburn Branch Park site that’s adjacent to the nature center at Belmont. More than 300 insects, mammals, birds, trees and plants have been identified, she said.

The Howard County Board of Education and County Council address two potential sites for future schools, while determining how to approach funding.

“You could just imagine 100 or 200 years from now what might be left of our parks and preservation areas if we don’t establish that these are important and essential for our community,” Boyd said. “We do understand that schools are essential. There’s no question about that, but if they’re going to be used for something, they should be replaced and our preservation areas should be maintained.”

Bruce Gist, the school system’s executive director of capital planning, said about 46 acres are recommended, but not required, for a 1,600-seat high school. The county has received positive results from environmental assessments at the Mission Road site, he said, and has begun environmental assessment at Rockburn Branch Park.

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The school system is also working with the Maryland Historical Society to address some potential archaeological elements at Rockburn Branch, which Gist said could impact the production of High School 13.

“We hired an independent contractor to look at both sites from a constructability, build-ability and usefulness standpoint and coordinate the different myriad of inspections that have to be done,” Gist said.

Both sites have more than 46 acres of buildable land, he said, but the wetlands in Elkridge would “somewhat restrict and limit” the high school’s construction.

Gist said replacing the land isn’t part of the discussion among the school system at this point. The state Department of Planning is expected to review both sites on Nov. 9 and the construction manager will present comparative analyses to the board on Nov. 16.

Chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt said the Board of Education shares the community’s concerns as the school system strives to be a “good neighbor.”

“We believe that in the event the 13th high school is ultimately placed at the [Rockburn Branch Park] site, we will be able to provide enhancements to the park system, both with the design and use of the facilitates, and with mitigation efforts to replace lost acreage.”

Andy Barth, a spokesman for Kittleman, said because site selection discussions are ongoing, “it’s too early to know what all the factors to be considered might be.”

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