An alternative site for a new Westminster high school -- on farmland north of the city -- is under serious consideration by county officials, some of whom say the tract might be the safest and most economical available.
The 75-acre parcel, known as the O'Farrell property, sits southwest of the intersection of Sullivan Road and Lemmon Road, outside Westminster.
The county commissioners are expected to decide this week whether to build the 1,200-student school there or at the original site, next to Cranberry Station Elementary School off Center Street in Westminster. These locations were the top two considered among the 12 sites reviewed.
Supporters said the O'Farrell property would pose fewer problems than the Cranberry site, where site work and rock removal might be costly and a $30 million spending limit would force school officials to eliminate plans for a football stadium. They also said the O'Farrell property's residential location might alleviate safety concerns parents have raised about the Cranberry site, which is near the Route 140 business corridor. "It would be a better school, better site, and will be cheaper for taxpayers," said school board member Susan Krebs. The school -- including the stadium -- could be built there for $30 million, she said.
But moving the location could delay the school's opening, scheduled in 2002, by a year or more.
Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said that has caused her to have "mixed feelings" about the new site.
"It's a nice piece of land. I had promised the citizens back in the winter that we would build a Westminster high school and build it on time. That's my concern," she said. "That's what I told the people, and I want my decision to be based on that."
But Krebs said she believes it would be possible to build the school on schedule.
"It would be a very aggressive schedule. But if everybody's willing to do it, we could finish by 2002," she said.
Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who declined to discuss specifics of any sites under consideration, said she does not like the Cranberry location.
"The Cranberry site, in my opinion, is an unsafe site. It is a difficult site because of slopes and rocks. On another site we can stay within our $30 million budget," she said.
Worried about delay
School board President Gary W. Bauer said he favors the O'Farrell property but is worried building there could delay the project too long.
Since the O'Farrell site is flatter, Bauer said, preparing it for construction would cost less. So, a stadium could be built immediately, and the school structure could be of higher quality, while staying under the county's $30 million spending cap.
"It's just a better site as far as topography goes," Bauer said.
He said he was deeply concerned, however, that securing the purchase of the property, doing preliminary work at a new site and extending water and sewage service could cause delays. Bauer said he would rather build the school at Cranberry than open too late.
"It could delay the project two, three, or four years," said Bauer. "I'm not for extending it more than a year, or year and a half. The overcrowding at Westminster High School is just going to get worse and worse."
Staying under price cap
The school system has been moving forward at the Cranberry site, and has spent $150,000 on preliminary site work. School officials were hoping to open the school on time, even while the county considered alternative sites.
According to Kathleen Sanner, director of school support services, the commissioners' decision to limit funding to $30 million ended all hopes of opening on time because the project must be redesigned. School staff will present a redesign to the school board in December, Sanner said.
With a delay certain at Cranberry, the school system is more open to alternatives, she said. Sanner would not discuss the O'Farrell property specifically, saying land-acquisition issues are meant to remain confidential until a site is purchased.
"If a better site is offered -- better in that the cost of developing was substantially less than at Cranberry -- we'd be very open to exploring it," she said.
Parents, too, have been weighing whether it would be better to have a school open at Cranberry on time or one at a better site, but later.
Citizens for Schools, a network of about 400 Westminster-area parents that has been lobbying vociferously for a new high school for months, has favored a different location. The group insists the school be delayed by only a year, if at all.
Susan Ullrich, group co-chair, said yesterday that the O'Farrell property seems safer than the Cranberry site because, at Cranberry, students driving to school would have to navigate a busy Route 140 corridor.
"And you've got a lot of young and inexperienced drivers who will be coming in there," Ullrich said.
At O'Farrell, Ullrich added, the school system would likely be spending less of its $30 million on rock removal, and more on building classrooms and a stadium.
"If you're talking about a delay anyway, we want a new site," Ullrich said. "Money should be spent building a school, not moving dirt."