County Council chambers at last accessible to wheelchair users


A decade of efforts translated into reality last night as the Howard County Council faced the public for the first time in handicapped-accessible chambers.

Council members heard testimony on topics as varied as school construction and affordable housing, but the session was overshadowed by the transformation of the county's premier meeting space.

The 26-year-old Banneker Room had been designed like a theater-in-the-round, with stairs leading into a pit for testimony. Now the floor is flat, with spaces reserved for people in wheelchairs.

"It has been such a long time in coming," said Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat who pushed for the change.

Accessibility activists - some in wheelchairs - maneuvered across the room for a photograph, an impossibility in earlier days.

"The bottom line is it's a much warmer environment, and I think all the citizens of Howard County will be pleased," said Mark Schlossberg, chairman of the county Commission on Disability Issues.

Later, Marriottsville residents who oppose plans to build the county's 12th high school in their neighborhood testified against a bill to extend public water to the 37-acre site.

One of the key unresolved issues, they said, is that the Maryland Department of the Environment has yet to grant a wastewater discharge permit to the school.

"Action on this bill should be deferred," said David Smith, a neighbor of the site.

William Brown, who directs construction and planning for the school system, said deferring action might stop work on the project. State environment officials would not likely approve the permit if the council doesn't extend public water, he said.

"It would have very critical implications for the schedule," he said.

The high school is expected to open in three years.

Nancy Rhead, a member of the Howard County Housing and Community Development Board, testified in support of a bill designed to stem the loss of affordable mobile homes in the county.

County growth controls - allocations limiting the number of units built each year and regulations delaying development around crowded schools - have made quick replacements difficult as trailer parks have closed.

Under County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray's bill, people would be permitted to develop new mobile-home lots without waiting for allocations if the units are replacing trailer parks closed after Jan. 1, 2000. The new mobile homes wouldn't be affected by crowded schools, either, if they are proposed for the same school district as the ones that were lost.

"This is a very uncomplicated and proactive bill," Rhead said.

The council is expected to vote Oct. 7.

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