Despite safety and cost concerns, a divided Board of County Commissioners decided yesterday to move ahead with plans to build a Westminster high school at the site next to Cranberry Station Elementary.
The board rejected an alternative site on farmland north of the city that supporters -- including Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, the planning commission, parents and school board members -- argue would pose fewer traffic hazards and less expensive site work than the Cranberry location.
Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Donald I. Dell refused to spend more time exploring the alternative site, known as the O'Farrell property, saying the Cranberry site -- off Center Street -- was equally viable and the project had been delayed too many times.
"I've been listening to all the debate. I've been on both sites. And I've heard nothing that makes me believe Cranberry is not a suitable site," said Dell, during the joint meeting of the commissioners and school board. "We should get on with it."
Gouge said the alternative site, at Sullivan and Lemmon roads, would create traffic problems for young drivers forced to maneuver on nearby windy country roads.
Saying the board was making a mistake, Frazier predicted building the school at the Cranberry site would cause the project to go $6 million over its $30 million budget because of rock removal and other site work, to fall behind schedule and lead to student injuries because of the high volume of traffic on nearby Route 140.
"People are going to get hurt. It's an unsafe site," Frazier said.
Yesterday's decision to keep the original site ends months of uncertainty surrounding the location of the 1,200-student school, which would ease crowding at Westminster High School, one of the state's largest schools with more than 2,000 students.
School board President Gary W. Bauer said he was relieved the commissioners -- who are charged with selecting property for county schools -- had ended their indecision.
"We were waiting for an answer," he said. "Now we can move forward."
Despite the mixed signals in recent months, school construction officials have been moving forward at the Cranberry site to meet its planned opening in 2002. The school system has spent $150,000 on preliminary site work and has been reviewing plans to stay within the $30 million budget cap set by the commissioners last month.
Softening for stadium
School officials feared the limit would force them to eliminate plans for a football stadium and make other cuts. But yesterday, the commissioners appeared to soften their stance on the budget limit, saying they wanted the stadium included.
Dell said although the original $38 million budget projection was "unreasonable," he was not committed to the $30 million cap. He said he would consider a small increase if necessary.
Gouge agreed, but warned school officials: "I don't want you to run away with the store."
Citizens for Schools, a network of about 400 Westminster-area parents that has been lobbying for a new high school, favored the alternative location.
"Everybody we've come across has wanted it there. Nobody wants the Cranberry site. The primary reason is the safety," said Susan Ullrich, the group's co-chair. "I think our children's safety was sold."
The alternative site also received support from Susan Krebs and other school board members.
"There is unanimous support from the community and us," she said.
School board member Ann Ballard said it was important that the public was behind the decision.
"I don't want to start a $30 million project that no one is happy with," she said.
The alternative site was also backed by the planning commission. Before yesterday's meeting, planning members sent a letter to the commissioners asking that they "seriously consider the O'Farrell property as the location for the construction of the new Westminster high school."
That opinion was based on analysis by planning member Maurice E. Wheatley, who had calculated that preparation costs would be significantly less at the O'Farrell site. He said the county could gain more than a million dollars by selling the Cranberry site.
But Gouge said performing soil and other tests of the O'Farrell property would take weeks, if not months -- time the county does not have.
"Let's make a decision and get it done," she said.
Former school board member John Myers, who attended yesterday's meeting, walked out frustrated by the results.
"I think it's a very bad decision," he said. "It's a poor use of tax money."