Ruling delayed in planning appeal


When Barbara Brown, a developer, sees the overgrown fields and rolling green hills of Lothian, she envisions a small housing development she wants to build.

Deborah Montgomery, principal of nearby Southern Middle School, looks at the same land and sees crowded classrooms, noisy hallways and long lines in the cafeteria.

Now, Mrs. Brown is appealing the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement's decision forbidding her to build nine homes on Solomon's Island Road. The county department says the schools can't handle more students.

The Board of Appeals postponed last night a final decision until after October, when estimates of the number of Lothian schoolchildren are tallied. Mrs. Brown and the county requested the postponement in hopes new figures will show the schools can handle more students.

But given population projections, the crowding will continue. County numbers show Lothian's school population growing steadily over the next decade. Southern Middle School already has 956 students, about 185 more than the state and county estimates it can handle.

"There just isn't room in my school," said Ms. Montgomery.

This fall, Ms. Montgomery's school will build a fifth portable classroom. Lunch is now broken into four periods because of crowding.

"Kids were sitting on top of each other," said Carolyn Page, assistant principal at the middle school. "It was unbearable."

Anthony Christhilf, the lawyer for Mrs. Brown, said the development would only add three students to Lothian Elementary. He said preventing the area from growing is "no answer at all." Mr. Christhilf favors redistricting or building new schools.

"You don't say we're going to stop new growth," said Mr. Christhilf. "Obviously, you have to provide schools or move children from one school to another."

Mrs. Brown's son Russell, who is handling much of the business for her, argues that he would be paying $50,000 in school waiver and impact fees for his mother's nine properties. He contends that there are about 17,000 empty seats in county classrooms.

"It's a beautiful county with good schools, so we don't disagree ++ with the fees," he said. "We just think they should build more schools."

The principals support building more schools as well, but where will the money come from, they wonder. Another problem is where to build the new schools.

Because students seem to come in waves, like the baby boomers, Southern Middle School is crowded now, but in five years the bulge will move on to the high school.

Mr. Brown suggested moving eighth grade into the high school if that were the case.

"The government should work a little more efficiently," he said.

The board is scheduled to hear Mrs. Brown's case early next year.

"It's a difficult situation," said Mr. Christhilf. "There's no quick fix."

While Lothian elementary expects to lose roughly 45 students from now until the year 2004, Southern Senior expects to grow by 500 pupils in that same period. County officials are left with the questions: Which grades get a new school? And what happens to all that extra space left over when the bulge graduates?

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