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Howard County school purchasing agreement draws skepticism from lawmakers and activists

Last September, Howard County officials agreed to purchase nearly 80 acres of land in Jessup to build a new high school.

But an agreement between the landholder and the county has drawn skepticism from local activists, lawmakers and school board members who are concerned it gives too much free rein to the developers.

In a 4-3 vote, the school board in March 2018 approved the proposal to build the county’s 13th high school on a site along Mission Road. County Executive Calvin Ball filed a resolution March 21 requesting the County Council approve a 25-year Developer Rights and Responsibilities Agreement that would freeze laws and zoning regulations on nearly 500 acres surrounding the site, which is owned by Chase Land and Annapolis Junction Holdings.

The county purchased the site land from Gould Property Co., the Washington-based general partner of Chase Land and Annapolis Junction Holdings, for $19.7 million.

“We know what these kinds of long-term developer exemptions can do to a community and the families already there, or who move in after all those many, many new homes [are built],” said Councilwoman Liz Walsh, in an email, referring to school overcrowding.

Walsh, a Democrat whose district includes old Ellicott City, said in an email that she could “not support the resolution in its current form. It’s a developer handout.”

She said she sees no reason why beyond the principal land purchase “the county would then also agree to convey, to the benefit of that one particular landowner, a blanket exemption from any possible change in law or zoning for 25 years hence.”

The Developer Rights and Responsibilities Agreement was unanimously approved Friday by the Planning Board.

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.

During a joint meeting Monday between the County Council and the Board of Education, Councilman David Yungmann said he has “a lot [of] reservations about this DRRA that we inherited.”

School board vice-chairwoman Kirsten Coombs, who voted in favor of the Mission Road site, said Monday she now has concerns about the agreement.

“I am nervous about this DRRA because it seems to be a lot of developer rights rather than responsibilities,” Coombs said, adding the grandfathering clause would allow the developers to evade future regulations that “could harm our children” with regard to overcrowding.

“I definitely have concerns, about not regulating them to follow regulations … I had no idea that would be giving away our rights in terms of protecting our students,” Coombs said.

In testimony submitted to the County Council, PTA spokeswoman Tonya Tiffany said its members unanimously opposed the resolution.

Tiffany wrote that while the PTA supports the 13th high school being built, “we do NOT support the agreement details where there would be 25 years of allowances given to the developer to operate without appropriate regulations and restrictions that are related to the health and safety of the citizens of Howard County in addition to the children who will be attending the future school on the adjacent property.”

Sang Oh, an attorney for the property owners, said the developers have been working on amendments to the agreement with Howard County’s Office of Law and that he would provide testimony “that will hopefully address these concerns.”

The County Council will host a public hearing about the proposal and other legislation at 7 p.m. April 22 in the George Howard Building.

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