With a 400-seat addition scheduled to open at rural Glenelg High School in less than two years and a new middle school nearby to follow, Howard County school officials thought building a small wastewater treatment plant for both would be routine.
It has proved to be anything but.
The $2 million project proposed on a wooded acre behind nearby Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in the western county has provoked a howl of outrage from nearby residents who, afraid of problems such as well contamination and lower property values, claim they weren't informed. They're organizing to stop the project, for which construction is supposed to begin in April.
"That's what angered people more than anything -- they rammed it down our throats," said Albert J. De-Remegis, an opposition leader.
The school board has backed off temporarily, apologized for not spreading the word better and promised a public meeting in January on the issue. Associate School Superintendent Sidney L. Cousin said all options will be reviewed again, and no construction bids have been advertised.
"In this, we dropped the ball," said school board Chairwoman Karen B. Campbell. The problem, she said, is that the lack of notice has raised public suspicions. "It opens the door to hysteria."
Brothers Frederic and Joseph Tomarchio, who both own expensive homes near Triadelphia Ridge Elementary, are angry.
"I think they're taking good taxpayer money and throwing it away, creating an ongoing menace," said Frederic Tomarchio. He fears the wastewater from the plant will pollute his well, emit an unpleasant odor and lower his property values. If the county builds this plant, he says, others will follow.
"What are they going to slip through next, a prison?" said Joseph Tomarchio.
The plant, intended to handle 36,000 gallons of waste fluid a day, would be mainly buried, Cousin said, with a brick structure above ground that's 30 feet long, 20 feet wide and 12 feet tall. Solid wastes would be moved by truck from an underground tank to the county's main sewage plant in Savage, while the wastewater would be treated and released into a nearby farm stream. The elementary school would not hook up to the plant, even when the middle school opens in 2004.
School officials say they have been routinely planning this -- using normal public disclosure processes -- for years. But residents said they can't read every legal notice in the newspaper or attend every school board meeting. Most heard about it after Sept. 22, when a public meeting was held at Glenelg High School. Even school board members said they were surprised the project was so close to construction.
The controversy put western Howard County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman in an awkward position because he wants the new classrooms but also represents the protesters.
"My point to [the school board] is let's go back and figure out any other alternative. We need to at least go through the process," said Kittleman, who said he has received far more complaints about this than any other issue since his election last year. The councilman said he doesn't know enough about the proposed plant to decide if it is the best choice.
"We have to have the expanded capacity in the schools in the west. I am in fact between a rock and a hard place," said Kittleman, a Republican.
The residents, meanwhile, are planning their strategy. They want the board to either expand Glenelg's septic field by purchasing 10 adjoining acres -- by condemnation, if necessary -- or run a small sewer pipe down Route 32 six miles to hook into the county's public utility system.
County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said expanding the septic field could work, if the land percolates -- absorbs fluids at the proper rate. "It's an alternative that needs to be shown not to work" before being abandoned, he said.
A pipeline along Route 32 would be impractical, he said, because it would require several expensive pumping stations and the state doesn't want sewer pipes in its right-of-way.
In addition, a sewer pipe could result in unintended consequences by creating the legal basis for more intense development in the western county. "It could open a Pandora's box," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy county planning director.
Another suggestion, to build a treatment plant at Glenelg High instead of at Triadelphia Elementary, carries other problems. The discharge would then go into Triadelphia Reservoir, which Howard officials say is safe to do. But the idea would stir opposition among Montgomery County residents and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which controls the reservoir.
Still, the delay is a help, residents said, aiding their efforts to organize.
"Frankly, I want to be a force to reckon with," said DeRemegis, who distributed hundreds of fliers that brought scores of opponents to an Oct. 18 County Council hearing on the county's water and sewer master plan.
Prodded by those speakers and a County Council caught in the middle, school officials are planning a full public hearing before the school board in January. They're also planning to invite people to visit the site, once it is marked to show where the building would go. A Maryland Department of the Environment hearing scheduled for Nov. 9 has been postponed in light of the delay.
While school officials hope time will ease the mistrust, DeRemegis said the reverse will occur. "As the issue goes on, the hostility will grow."
The problem at Glenelg High stretches back at least 20 years, when county sanitarians noted that the 1957-vintage septic system that disperses the school's waste was marginal and could not support any increased building capacity.
Four years ago, when plans were made to expand all of Howard's high schools to 1,400 students each, the idea of a small waste treatment plant was suggested in a consultant's study.
William J. Brown, director of school construction and planning, said options are limited by both politics and geography.
Discounting the environmental impact of a sewage plant, he noted the stream that would get the discharge already has mounds of cow manure washed into it. And Campbell said wastewater from homes like hers with septic systems seeps into the ground now without polluting wells.
Still, Cousin said, his staff will go back now and review every possible option.
"The real issue is, we could have done a better job communicating to the folks," Cousin said. "In hindsight we know that."