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School, farmers play ball on land sale


After more than a year of nail-biting negotiations, Archbishop Spalding High School has an agreement to purchase the adjacent 22-acre farm from three elderly Severn brothers who were determined the property wouldn't become another housing development.

The Upton family farm, which will cost the school about $2 million, is one of the few remaining working farms along busy New Cut Road. Spalding plans to convert the land where fruit and tobacco once grew into badly needed playing fields for its lacrosse, soccer and softball teams.

The deal, which is expected to close early next year, preserves the house where all 12 Upton children were born after their father cleared the land in 1890. It also leaves the family with 2 acres near the house, and includes the stipulation that Melvin, Calvin and Ridgely Upton are allowed on the field property at any time.

The deal won't be closed until Spalding fulfills county requirements, including hooking the property to the public water system. But school officials, who have quietly been talking about the deal for weeks, publicly announced it this month as part of their fund-raising campaign.

In addition to the fields, the school is planning its first new construction since it was created in the 1960s - a new academic and athletic facility that will include eight classrooms, a gym and a weight-training center. The addition is expected to cost $4 million.

Melvin Upton, who at 93 is still farming, said he's pleased the family was able to make a deal with the school.

Upton, who remembers when the road was unpaved and he could recognize passers-by by the rattle of their trucks, is now surrounded by expensive homes built on land that once belonged to family farms. One such development, Daniel's Purchase, sits on the former Wagner farm next to Upton's sweet potato garden.

"If it's to be sold, I'd rather it go to the school, because I don't want no houses on it," said Upton, whose home sits on several acres across from the school that weren't part of the sale. "It's worth something to us to have the school get it."

Even so, the deal came precariously close to falling through.

Spalding came up significantly in price during the negotiations, but it could not match builders' offers, some of which exceeded $4 million, according to sources familiar with the deal.

In the spring, school President Michael Murphy told a group of parents that the family's lawyers had rejected his best offer and that the deal was off.

Murphy and the parents were crestfallen. For years, cheerleaders have been practicing in the halls because of lack of space. The soccer team uses a tiny field that lies dangerously close to the main road. The lacrosse teams go to a nearby vocational-technical school for its practice. One field isn't usable on game days because it turns into a parking lot, another is a mostly brown swatch - not quite big enough for a game - where the football team warms up.

"We had one opportunity," Murphy said of the school's plans to expand fields. "And we knew if we lost that opportunity, it would be lost forever."

Three days after he got the rejection, negotiators called back and gave Murphy another chance. The school raised its offer and agreed to pay at closing - a benefit because home builders sometimes take years to pay. The school won its fields.

"When you talk about divine intervention - I'm convinced that played a role in this case," Murphy said.

Students and parents said they're thrilled about the acquisition.

"By the time they get everything in order, I'll be gone," said Sam Clement, a senior lacrosse player. "But it's a good investment for the juniors."

Pat Brady, who sent his three children to Spalding, said he volunteered to help maintain the grass on the existing field hockey field, but hasn't had the chance because it's in constant use. As he watched his daughter clobber the ball on a recent afternoon, he pointed out the field's holes.

"We go to the other schools and they have these beautiful fields," Brady said. "It's always so embarrassing to come to ours."

Murphy expects most of the new fields to be ready by next fall.

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