Citizens fight school plan

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Legal action by a citizens group threatens to delay the scheduled 2005 opening of a Howard County high school in Marriottsville. Group members hope their efforts will force the school board to build it elsewhere.

"That's our whole position; that's really what we would like to have happen," said Chuck T. Lacey Jr., director of Citizens for Adequate School Facilities, which contends that the school site is inadequate.

Education officials say those efforts will fail.

"We plan to build on that site, we want to build on that site, and we're going to build on that site," school system attorney Mark Blom said last week after an emergency closed meeting called by Board of Education members to discuss options for responding to the legal action.

Lacey's group has filed two appeals, the first questioning the validity of the County Council's decision in February to allow the school to exceed by 11 feet the 34-foot height limit typically allowed in residential areas.

"A building of this size will stick out like a sore thumb," the group's complaint says.

The County Council has filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, which is scheduled to be heard in Howard County Circuit Court on Aug. 15.

The second appeal is scheduled to be heard Aug. 20 before the Maryland Department of the Environment. It calls for the withdrawal of a waste-discharge permit granted to the school's builders. Citizens group members say the permit doesn't adequately address environmental concerns of nearby residents.

School system representatives question the legitimacy of the group's claims.

"They have vowed to delay the school whatever it takes. You have to question what exactly is the motivation," said school board member Courtney Watson, who lobbied for the high school before she was on the board.

Lacey and his 200-member group say the county's 12th high school, intended to relieve projected crowding in the northeast in 2005, needs more than the 43 acres that the Marriottsville location offers.

Watson points out that the location is the third-largest property for a high school in the county.

Building there, the citizens group said, could cause traffic and safety problems, create a septic system nightmare and harm the environment and residents' health.

They're urging the school system to instead build the high school on county-owned land on Route 144 in West Friendship and to put a less-demanding elementary school on the Marriottsville site, as the school system had originally planned when it bought the land years ago.

"It would not be cost-effective to change sites; it wouldn't make any sense," Watson said, adding that doing so would also delay the project because the permit application process would have to start over.

The school system's chief business officer, Bruce Venter, echoed Watson's concerns.

Venter, who has been working with Lacey's group to address members' concerns, said there is no chance that the school will be built on Route 144.

That site was considered by board members more than 18 months ago and dismissed because "it's another three miles west of the present Mount View site and the present site is farther west than we'd like," Venter said.

Lacey said it's a matter of a five-minute bus ride and that he doesn't see why that is a big issue.

Watson worries that building a high school that far west could ensure the need for a 13th high school in the near future.

"Where the 12th high school is now located, it has the ability to relieve the northeast in a much better way," Watson said.

"Building a new school that far west would guarantee the county would [eventually] have to spent another $50 million on another school," she said.

The appeals could be costly for the county if they're successful.

"So far, we've been able to absorb all of the delays; they have not caused the project to go off track," Blom said. "But if they win, we will have a construction problem."

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