Faced with a development boom in the Laurel area, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education has asked the county to either set aside a piece of a proposed 1,600-home project site for a new school or ask the builder to contribute millions to build a new one.
News of the Aug. 29 letter from the board and Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell to County Executive Janet S. Owens may refocus the discussion onto a separate 78-acre parcel in Russett that's controlled by the board and has been envisioned as an elementary school site for more than a decade.
Community leaders in the Laurel area have fought to keep that parcel out of the hands of Russett Center Limited Partnership, the developer of Russett, which has wanted to convert a portion of the parcel into private housing. Those leaders say that with a looming military job boom at Fort Meade, the board should begin construction of a new elementary school there to meet the population demand.
Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association, said board members should focus on securing impact fees for a new school in Russett, rather than asking the county to set aside 15 acres at the proposed 1,600-home site, known as Arundel Gateway. The sites are about two miles apart.
"We have got the 78 acres for the school right here in Russett - how much more land do they need?" said Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association.
School board president Tricia Johnson said of the letter: "It's standard procedure when we hear that there may be a development on the horizon. We want to make sure we have adequate land set aside."
The letter noted that school capacity does not exist in the Laurel area. Brock Bridge Elementary is already over capacity, and Maryland City is on the verge of running out of space.
The Russett property came up during a board meeting last week on the capital budget. Members were set to look at replacing Pershing Hill Elementary School on Fort Meade, but the board instead added $45,000 to expand the scope of that study to consider building a much larger school on the Russett property. "It would give us more seats," board Vice President Eugene Peterson said. However, building a school at Russett is one of several options to address school capacity.
Smallwood and other civic leaders in the Laurel area have noted that the Russett land would be ideal for one or more new schools to accommodate the growth from the national military realignment, also known as BRAC, which is expected to bring more than 20,000 jobs to Fort Meade in the next five years.
One possible revenue source for building schools on the Russett site could be residential impact fees associated from Arundel Gateway. Potential impact fees - which are paid to the county for each housing unit -would likely exceed $3.5 million. They could go even higher if the County Council raises impact fees next year.
Ribera Development LLC of Annapolis revealed its plans with Parkland Properties of Millersville this summer to build Arundel Gateway, which will also include a high-end town center and office space at a site off Route 198 near the Patuxent Research Refuge.
Ribera representatives have met with civic leaders from Maryland City and Russett, and have learned of their intent to protect the board-controlled land in Russett from private development.
"We are being told there is land in Russett that is ripe for a school site," Ribera vice president Eric M. Devito said. "They would like to see a school there because they want to protect [the site] from development."
Devito added: "We will do whatever we can to cooperate as far as [contributing] a school site or dollars." He noted, though, that Ribera has not submitted any formal development plans for the county. For that to happen, the County Council must approve residential and commercial zones on the 300 acres now zoned for industrial use slated for Arundel Gateway. A vote has been pushed off until after the November county elections.
Owens said in her Sept. 21 response to the board that the property must be rezoned for residential use before the county can engage the school board on the subject.
Civic leaders in Laurel said that momentum might be building for a new school on the Russett land.
In addition to Arundel Gateway, another 400 homes are expected to pop up in the Laurel area over the next 10 years. Civic leaders said the Russett land is large enough to accommodate new schools and provide much-needed parkland for West County.
The school board, so far, has made no decisions about the Russett land, which was valued in a study this year at $8.25 million. That study also put the tab for upgrading, renovating and expanding the school system's buildings and facilities at $1.5 billion, and projected that enrollment countywide would remain flat over the next decade.
Civic leaders have criticized that study, contending it did not factor military-related growth into future school construction and infrastructure needs.
The expected growth in the county, and the potential need for additional school capacity, is an issue that the school board will be taking up beginning in December when Maxwell presents the board with his proposal for school redistricting.
Boundaries for the new Seven Oaks Elementary School in Odenton have yet to be drawn, and, once they are, will affect the attendance boundaries for other West County elementary schools.
But Johnson said the board will have to look at boundaries, and school capacity, countywide in preparing for the military realignment.
"We have to be ready in the entire county for the influx," Johnson said. "We expect the employees will be working in West County but they could be living everywhere [in the county]. We are anticipating growth all over the county."