The decade-long struggle to save Wiley H. Bates High School, an emotional effort that divided Annapolis, pitting black neighbors against environmental activists, will come to a head tonight.

Closed 26 years ago when Anne Arundel County finished integrating its schools, the once all-black high school is a local landmark.

Neighborhood leaders have been trying for years to preserve the red-brick school as a community and senior center. But their efforts have been stymied by the high cost of renovating the asbestos-riddled building.

A non-profit group formed to save Bates came up with a solution -- a partnership with developer Victor Frenkil, who promised to give $1.2 million toward the asbestos removal in exchange for the right to build 85 town houses on the grounds.

But the proposal could be scuttled if the City Council refuses to rezone the 16-acre siteto permit higher-density development.

The land's current zoning allows only single-family homes. But the developer and the Bates Foundation claim the neighborhood has changed substantially since the original zoning. They also believe the city erred in 1970 when it zoned the parcel for single homes but permitted multifamily dwellings nearby.

A hearing on the rezoning is scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight in City Hall.

Hundreds of Bates supporters are expected to plead for thechange, which would clear the way for the long-awaited renovations. They will be opposed by some environmentalists, who are afraid the development could jeopardize protected natural areas within 1,000 feet of the headwaters of Spa Creek, a buffer defined by the state as a Critical Area around the Chesapeake Bay.

Even if the council allows the rezoning, Maryland's Critical Areas Commission will have to grantAnnapolis the first-ever land redesignation in the state, said Eileen P. Fogarty, city planning and zoning director.

The Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended denying Frenkil's request. In a 4-3vote last month, the commission found the neighborhood had not changed dramatically in the past 20 years and no mistake was made in the 1970 zoning.

Alderman Samuel Gilmer, D-Ward 3, angrily called for a"full review" of the decision and vowed to "stand there and publiclyquestion them in long, elaborate detail."

He says he agrees with Bates supporters, who argue that the areas off Spa Road and West Street, the main roads near the old school, have been intensely developedsince the 1970s.

"It has been a long time that there's been an effort to do something with the building," said Yevola S. Peters, retired head of the Community Action Agency, which spearheaded efforts to renovate the school. "We hope to persuade the council to be supportive."

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