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Panel OKs Montessori site plan


Over the objections of neighboring property owners on Hughes Shop Road, a divided county planning commission approved plans yesterday for a $1.2 million Montessori School north of Westminster city limits.

More than 50 people attended the commission's monthly meeting to reiterate their opposition to the project.

Five property owners addressed the planning panel to express their concerns, including worries about drainage problems and increased traffic.

"My concern is the water and septic systems," said Charles Fowler, an adjoining property owner. "I haven't heard any details about them. That septic is going to leach downhill, where my property is."

The school, with a planned enrollment of 135, would require about 2,000 gallons of water daily - roughly the amount that would be needed by 10 households. State health officials have approved the school's septic system and well, but school officials are waiting for appropriation permits.

For the past year, residents have circulated petitions, attended development review hearings and organized the Hughes Shop Road Area Neighborhood Coalition in opposition to the private school, planned for 27 hilltop acres about a mile from Route 140.

One couple, Dennis and Lucy Britton, has refused to move a fence on their property to accommodate the project, and they said they will not permit any upgrades to their land to improve drainage, complicating the school's plans to improve Hughes Shop Road.

The school has committed to spending about $60,000 on improvements to Hughes Shop Road, to correct drainage problems that have affected the road for years. The county is expected to provide the materials for the work.

"The road is a safety hazard," said David Taylor, who lives near the site and urged the planning panel to closely scrutinize the school's construction plans. "We're talking about the lives of children. I think this is worth a closer look."

The criticisms delayed the vote for about an hour, but did not change the outcome. The planning panel voted 2-1 to approve the Montessori School's site plan, with Maurice "Ed" Wheatley and David L. Brauning voting for the plan. Board member Melvin E. Baile Jr. dissented. Commission President Deborah Ridgely only votes in the event of a tie. Member Edward M. Beard was absent.

"I think it's unfair that this new use comes in and a fence that's been there 25 years has to be moved, and the property owner has to incur the cost of moving it," Baile said. "I also have a problem with the property owner losing control of that portion of their land."

The 25-year-old Montessori School has an enrollment of 125 children in pre-kindergarten through seventh grade and operates at two churches in the city. It is losing its lease at one location and would like to consolidate in a building that would allow for expansion.

Plans for the school show seven classrooms, a library and offices, but no cafeteria or gymnasium.

Westminster Common Councilman Greg Pecoraro and council President Damian L. Halstad attended yesterday's meeting in support of the school, but did not address the panel.

"This school is a benefit to the county and any organization or company that thinks about looking at this area," Clark Schaffer, lawyer for the school, told the panel. "That is why this is a permitted use, a favored use" at this site, which is zoned for agricultural use.

Federally backed industrial revenue bonds, reserved for nonprofit organizations and for projects that would spur economic development, would finance construction.

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