Race could be factor in fight over college site


Three months before Sojourner-Douglass College plans to begin work on a new satellite campus in southern Anne Arundel County, some neighbors are trying to scuttle the project, noting concerns about traffic and a possible violation of a land-use covenant.

Others believe that the real issue - although no opponent has stated it directly - is race. They note that criticism of the predominantly black college's plans is coming from residents of the mostly white Edgewater community, an area with a history of racial strife.

"It has to be racially motivated for the most part," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel branch of the NAACP and a Sojourner-Douglass alumnus. "Give me a break. This is a college we're talking about. There's been a lot worse in Edgewater."

Several opponents said racial concerns are not motivating them, though they acknowledged that it could be a factor with some.

"I don't think there is" a racial component to the opposition, said Charles R. Tucker, a South County land preservation advocate who wrote a letter complaining about the plans to County Executive Janet S. Owens, "but there could be."

The Baltimore-based school is moving one of its satellite campuses out of leased space near Annapolis and into a new 16,000-square-foot building at the busy intersection of Routes 2 and 214.

The college applied for building permits in November and held a ceremonial groundbreaking in December. The process was moving along fairly quietly until recent weeks.

Last week, college officials appeared before the Anne Arundel County legislative delegation to discuss their plans. Lawmakers invited college representatives after receiving several complaints about the planned campus. The board of trustees of the South River Colony Conservancy also plans to discuss the matter at a closed meeting tonight.

As opposition has grown, college and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders aren't the only ones who have somewhat suspicious that race is an issue.

"It crossed my mind that there may be some issues down there where some people may have that type of view," said Bob Burdon, president and chief executive officer of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce.

School board member Tony Spencer was a little more blunt: "If anyone wants to say they oppose it because of traffic, that's ridiculous. Why didn't they complain about the [new] golf course?"

The controversy follows several incidents in the community that had racial overtones.

In 2000, then-schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who is black, received a death threat that was laced with racial epithets. The letter-writer objected to Parham's plan to send children from the Mayo area of Edgewater to predominantly black Annapolis Middle School while the Mayo school was being fixed.

In 2001, Frank and Tina Marie Head backed out of purchasing a home in the London Towne area of Edgewater after they found racist graffiti on the home. This month, racist graffiti was painted on a stairwell at South River High, the school that serves the area.

Sojourner-Douglass officials said they were aware of the reports of racial strife in the Edgewater area when they decided to locate the campus there. Charlestine R. Fairley, the director of the school's Annapolis center, said several people commented to her, "Oh, you're going to Edgewater?"

But the school had outgrown its Annapolis location on Old Solomons Island Road. When the college came to the area in 1993, it had 10 students. Now it has 223, Fairley said.

The college, named for slavery abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, became an independent institution in 1980. It is an adult, evening and weekend college. The average student age is 35, Fairley said, and most are returning to earn a bachelor's degree they never completed.

Fairley said the school picked the site in Edgewater because, in many ways, it seemed perfect. The land there was cheaper than in Annapolis, it was designated for educational use and it is owned by the college's current landlord, Tom Schubert.

In November, the school applied for building permits, which are pending. Schubert, who is developing the land, said construction could begin as early as June and last eight months. The 5.7-acre site will have a 12-classroom, single-story building with about 100 parking spots. That will allow for eventual expansion, he said.

The county does not enforce others' restrictive covenants and the land's zoning permits schools, county officials said, so it appears any challenge would have to come in court.

For their part, college officials intend to move forward with construction, Schubert and Fairley said, adding that they believe they have addressed the concerns of the neighbors.

A traffic study is required as part of the building permit process; the county is reviewing that study. As for environmental concerns, Schubert said he is addressing the storm water management issues raised by county permit officials.

And, Schubert said, he is following the covenant that was signed in 1988 by nearby community groups and a local developer. It restricts the use to educational purposes "in conjunction with" the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.

Opponents say operation of a college is not "in conjunction with" the board. Schubert and college officials said they have the support of the board and are planning programs in coordination with the county schools.

But that doesn't satisfy some such as Edna Schmitt, a resident of the area for nearly 40 years and president of the Mayo Civic Association. She said she worries about the traffic that the college would generate, and was disappointed to hear that some people suspect an underlying motive.

"That's sad," she said. "My children went to school with the colored children down here."

Greg Abbott, president of the nearby South River Colony Conservancy, said a small group, not a majority of the residents, opposes the school. He said he supports it.

As for concerns that the campus would primarily serve black students, he said, "That particular point has never come up."

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