Harford school board votes to overrule Town of Bel Air on Homestead-Wakefield School construction demands

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Sep. 20—The Harford County Board of Education has voted to overrule the Town of Bel Air's decision to require a public road connector for the Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School project.

Replacement of the three-building school, which is over capacity, with a single building on the Wakefield campus has been delayed because of a dispute between the school system and Bel Air over the connector road. Because of the delay, public school officials have said the new school may not be ready to open in fall 2024 as planned.

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The Planning Commission reconsidered the Homestead-Wakefield preliminary site plan at its Sept. 1 meeting and issued a new, conditional approval, which still requires a public connector road through the South Main Street campus, connecting East MacPhail Road to West MacPhail Road. The town has said the 2022 Comprehensive Plan requires the road. The school board objects to the road, saying it would divide the campus and divert traffic through the site.

The commission informed the school board of its decision in a recent letter. The building permit and other permits are contingent upon the school board agreeing to the terms in the Planning Commission's letter within 60 days. That, in turn, will require designing the connector road and providing a right-of-way somewhere on the Homestead-Wakefield campus in the final site plan.

The conditional approval also requires the school board to agree that it will set aside school property for a road, which has yet to be designed, or even surveyed to locate street lines, according to agenda documents.

In voting to overrule the Planning Commission's conditional approval Monday evening, the board clarified that the entire Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School property is to be used for educational purposes.

In April, the town first informed the board that a road would be required. Later that month, the board said it would overrule the requirement. The town, however, did not accept its authority to do so, said Jillian Lader, Harford County Public Schools manager of communications. The board filed an appeal in county Circuit Court and will now amend that appeal to reference the new decision and the new overrule, Lader said.

The board has the power to overrule the decision through Section 3-205(c)(3) of the Maryland Annotated Code's land-use article, which allows for the body having jurisdiction over financing of the public building to overrule the Planning Commission's decision by a two-thirds vote, according to agenda documents.

The school system is following all steps to seek a building permit, but the town has said it will not issue the permit unless the board accepts the conditional approval, Lader said.

"In other words, we will still apply for the permit, but we expect it to be rejected since the board did not accept the decision," Lader said. "The only way to move the project forward without accepting the decision is to have a court interpret the Planning Commission's authority over land owned by the Board of Education."

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However, the Planning Commission has separated the two projects so the school board can continue planning and begin construction of the school, Bel Air Town Administrator Edward Hopkins told The Aegis on Tuesday.

"They lose no rights by signing the [conditional approval] letter and signing the letter does allow them to acquire the necessary permits to begin construction," Hopkins said.

The letter is required as a prerequisite for the issuance of the building permit, which is part of municipal procedure. If it isn't signed by Superintendent Sean Bulson, the town will not issue a building permit, Hopkins said.

"Per town procedure, signing the letter is required as a prerequisite for the issuance of the building permit," Hopkins said. "This is consistent with every construction project in town."

Signing the letter does not mean the school system must build the road, Hopkins explained. The letter will allow the board to appeal the matter in circuit court, Hopkins said. If the board loses the appeal, it will have work with the town to build the road.

Also on Monday, the board approved the renovation of the Harford Academy on Campus Hill, formerly known as John Archer School, after reviewing the feasibility study.

The renovated academy will include new and improved program space requirements to meet the needs of the current students, additional elementary school capacity, lab school components and shared program spaces to provide a single school community experience, according to agenda documents.