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Howard lawmakers, Board of Education express skepticism over school purchasing agreement

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball recommended amending a proposed school purchasing agreement between the government and property owners in Jessup who have agreed to sell land for a 13th county high school.

The county agreed to purchase 77 acres from Gould Property Co., the Washington-based general partner of Chase Land and Annapolis Junction Holdings, for $19.7 million, according to court records.

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Before the county can officially purchase the land, however, the County Council has to approve a resolution to adopt a Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement. The agreement has drawn skepticism from Councilwoman Liz Walsh, and the Board of Education deemed it a form of “special treatment.”

The proposed agreement would apply to a quarry on the property and nearly 500 acres of land surrounding the site, which is zoned for residence, business and manufacturing. As written, it would freeze zoning regulations including those that deal with forest conservation and stream buffer ordinances for 25 years. The proposed agreement would exempt the property from being subject to the new Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance school capacity requirements slated to go into effect in July.

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The school board earlier this month unanimously voted to recommend the County Council slash these requirements and reduce the exemption period to five years and allow for the possibility of reviewing or renewing the agreement.

Three hours before the April 22 public hearing, Ball announced he would ask the County Council to vote to “limit exemptions” for the property owners. During the hearing, Sang Oh, an attorney who represents the quarry property owners, said he wrote the amendment filed by Ball to clarify specifically what regulations would be frozen.

Ball’s amendment suggest changes to nine ordinances — including the Adequate Public Facilities Act, the Subdivision and Land Development Regulations, and the Forest Conservation Act — would not be frozen unless a proposed change “specifically affects or targets, or could reasonably be construed to specifically affect or target” the quarry or the land surrounding it.

The Howard County Board of Education voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend multiple amendments to a school purchasing agreement currently before County Council.

The latter portion of the amendment caused concern for some local activists like Lisa Markovitz, who testified that the language “basically negates any changes” that affect them.

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“These regulations aren’t frozen unless the changes affect you. In other words, that whole paragraph is worthless because of those two words ‘affects or,’ ” she said, adding that any change could be construed as affecting the land, thus freezing so-called exempted regulations.

Oh said the property owner would have to prove the change specifically targets them and that the amendment does not sidestep county regulation, but, rather, ensures the property owners are no worse off after they sell their land to the county.

In 1997, the quarry was given a conditional use exemption by the county and allowed to continue operating. A ruling by the Board of Appeals determined the owner could not renew the exemption after 25 years.

School board member Christina Delmont-Small questioned if the proposal was a way to circumvent the 1997 decision.

“The [agreement] as written nullifies the Board of Appeals decision and allows the property owner to continue operating the quarry beyond the 25 years established by the Board of Appeals,” Small said.

Oh said he disagreed.

During the April 22 meeting, Walsh mentioned a line in the 1997 Board of Appeals case that allowed property owners to pursue conditional use to mine the quarry.

The owners said they would operate the “quarry for only 25 years, even if product is left to be mined.”

“That was the basis for [the county’s approval of the] quarry’s operations,” Walsh said.

“I think there’s different ways to view that statement. And we agree that that [conditional use] terminates in 25 years,” Oh said, adding the county can reject a new application if they choose to.

“We don’t believe that statement precludes our application for a new [conditional use],” Oh said.

Walsh later said, “It’s not the board’s practice to put in [unnecessary] language. And I think that language is in … the [1997 decision] for a reason. And I think it’s because it was … one of the conditions for the [conditional use] then.”

The decision written by the board stipulates the conditional use “shall terminate without right of renewal 25 years from the date on which all necessary excavation permits for the project have been obtained.”

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball prefiled legislation Thursday to get one step closer to breaking ground for Howard’s 13th high school in Jessup.

The proposed purchasing agreement highlighted that the property owners can apply for a new conditional-use exemption. Without the DRRA, property owners could still apply for a new conditional use, said Scott Peterson, a county spokesman. The Board of Appeals case does not disallow owners from applying for a new conditional use, Peterson added.

In the meeting, Oh suggested Walsh’s argument is irrelevant until property owners apply for a new conditional use. “I imagine some people will make the argument you’re making … and that would be the relevant forum.”

Councilwoman Deb Jung expressed doubt that the agreement has legal sufficiency as one of the requirements says property owners “shall” include specifics about a proposed development including anticipated density, a summary of the permits needed for construction, and the maximum height and size of structures expected to be on the property.

“But you’re not at that point, which is why that information is not contained in the agreement. Which is why it doesn’t fit the box of a [DRRA],” she said, adding that it might need to be an amendment to the county’s purchasing agreement.

Oh replied to her statement, saying that he’s “not sure that’s an actual requirement.”

“I don’t think we need to bother the council with the assurance that that legal sufficiency exists. I think we can do that with the administration and the office of law after,” Oh said, adding that the “critical decision … is conceptually is do you want to agree to a 25-year [agreement].”

The $130.7 million construction project is estimated to accommodate 1,650 students and is designed to have 579 parking spaces and 34 school bus parking spaces. The county is hoping to start building in 2020 and open the school by September 2023, according to a press release.

After owners ceases operations, rainwater would make the quarry into a lake which could take up to 10 years, Oh previously said.

If the DRRA is not settled by the end of May, construction could be delayed by a year.

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