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School-site debate shifts to forest, road concerns


Almost everyone agrees that Howard County schools are too crowded and that more schools need to be built. But when it comes to getting started on the new Northeast Elementary School, it seems that school officials just can't find a location on which everyone agrees.

After nearly a year of finding and then rejecting sites to place the county's 38th elementary school, officials finally settled last month on county-owned land in Ellicott City.

Like the calm at the center of a storm, the new site -- about 40 acres of forest and wetlands near Route 100 -- seemed for a moment to be free of controversy.

But in recent weeks, home-owners near the proposed site have raised concerns about this last choice, decrying it as anything but controversy-free.

The land the school system is considering -- on the eastern side of Old Stockbridge Drive, south of the intersection of Route 108 and Montgomery Road -- is lush with trees, wetlands and grassy areas.

Many residents in the neighborhood of townhouses and condominiums closest to the site say the plush forest where the school is to be located is too precious to cut down.

"Our first concern is the fact that there aren't many forested areas left in eastern Howard County and this is one of them," said Maria Alvarez, who has lived in Woodland Village, south of the proposed site for the school, for 12 years. "We have a lot of birds, a lot of animals back there, and of course it's all going to be destroyed. Their habitat is going to be destroyed."

The residents are also concerned about the proposed access road that would lead to the school. The thoroughfare would empty onto Old Stockbridge Road -- a major artery for the Woodland Village and Woodland Park communities.

"People jog there, kids play, people walk their dogs," Alvarez said. "They're going to be bringing all that traffic into our neighborhoods."

Joe Wisniewski, said many of the residents in the community would prefer -- if the school must be built -- to have the access lane egress on another major road, one that is less residential.

"We'd love to see if somehow they can bring the road around to [Route] 108 or bring it around to Montgomery Road, through some of the land that's owned by the Maryland School for the Deaf," Wisniewski said.

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, has been working with the school system to try to relieve some of the problems.

The proposed site and the concerned neighbors are in Gray's district.

School district officials, he said, have been responsive and have begun to address some of the issues, including the possible increase in storm-water runoff from the school to the homes.

In addition, school officials have contacted the Maryland School for the Deaf to discuss whether some of its property might be used for an entrance, said Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

School district engineers have planned to position the school to protect as many trees as possible, Cousin said, so that the school would not be visible from major roads.

The engineers also plan to reduce the size of playing fields to the minimum required by law to avoid cutting down more trees, he said.

"It is a beautiful site," Cousin said. "And we have every reason to be a good neighbor."

Gray said he thinks the neighbors might soon begin to accept the school there, since school officials have tried so hard to be accommodating.

"I think people are coming around. Considering the fact that the school system obviously addressed some of those issues concerning storm-water runoff," Gray said. "And with the siting of the school, I think that should allay some of those [tree-clearing] concerns. So I think we can really begin to have the community accept the Stockbridge Road entrance," he said.

The school is set to open in 2003 to relieve crowding in the northeast part of the county.

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