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(Enlarge) The Board of County Commissioners are attempting to buy 254 acres in Mount Air as means of staving off a lawsuit, and preventing the land from being developed. Last week the county advertised an offer of $23.5 million for the land. The owners, Forty West Builders, were granted an approval back in 2002 to build 102 homes in two projects, Eagles Crest and Ridge Estates, but the county later attempted to halt the developments based upon concerns about water and school capacities. (Map by Patricia Irwin)

School capacity in Mount Airy — one of the key issues in the county's effort to stop a pair of developments that would yield 102 houses along Route 27 — isn't as dire as county officials have depicted in the past, according to officials with Carroll County Public Schools.

"If the homes are built, we're fine," said Bill Caine, facilities planner for Carroll County Public Schools. "If not, we're fine, and we have a little bit more room."

Last week the Board of County Commissioners advertised an offer of $23.5 million to purchase 254 acres from Forty West Builders in a proposed settlement of a lawsuit dating back several years.

Forty West won a 2003 Circuit Court case in which the county tried to stop its plans for two residential developments — a 91-acre housing project called Eagles Crest and 163-acre project called Ridgewood Estates.

Negotiations between the county and Forty West are still under way, and the county's offer of $23.5 million to buy the property and hold it as open space is seen as an alternative to a more costly settlement that stands now as $35 million -- and result in the developments going forward.

Without a settlement the case could return to court in October, said Vivian Laxton, Carroll County public information administrator.

"We haven't finalized negotiations, so anything could change," she said.

Laxton said if the county does buy the land, no homes would be built and the property could be used for potential underground wells, a water recharge area and perhaps parkland.

"Rather of putting out tens of millions of dollars in damages and get nothing in return, the county thinks this would be the best way to reach a settlement and get 254 acres out of the development plan and provide sources of water for the southwestern part of the county," she said.

Clark Shaffer, an attorney representing Forty West, said he could not comment on the case nor negotiations.

In 2002, the county granted a concurrency management certificate to Forty West Builders Inc., based in Ellicott City, to build the developments off Ridge and Watersville roads.

The certificate is issued for developments after determining what affect they will have on schools, water and services.

But in 2003, the then-commissioners adopted an ordinance that halted, for 12 months, all projects that had not reached the preliminary plan stage — including Eagles Crest and Ridgewood Estates.

Forty West took the case to court, saying that because the county had granted the certificate, it spent about $7 million to acquire the property and perform necessary prep work and studies, according to court documents.

Circuit Court ruled in Forty West's favor, saying the county had breached a contract by stopping the project after issuing the concurrency certificate.

Since 2003, the county has spent $390,250 on outside counsel for the case, Laxton said.

Schools have room

One of the issues prompting the county's 2003 ordinance was concern for school capacity in certain areas of the county, including Mount Airy.

But one argument — that the county would need to build a new school because of the developments — doesn't exist anymore, said the CCPS planner.

Caine said elementary school capacity in Mount Airy was addressed in 2005 when Parr's Ridge Elementary was built, giving Parr's Ridge and Mount Airy elementary schools a combined 250 open seats currently available.

And high school enrollment is projected to decrease, he said, because fewer elementary and middle school students are expected to be in the system.

The middle school level is overcrowded, though. Caine said Mount Airy Middle is over capacity with 603 students enrolled this school year, and that's expected to rise to 659 by 2018.

The school's functional capacity, set by the county school system, is 500; although the state-rated capacity is 638.

But the school system has a study under way to determine whether it will be best to build a new middle school or renovate and add space to the existing school, he said. An addition would boost capacity at Mount Airy Middle to 750 students.

Enrollment projections are based in part on how many housing permits are issued, Caine said. Mount Airy has issued 90 to 100 permits on average for the past 10 years, and even with Eagles Crest and Ridgeview Estates, the average should still be less than 90, he said.

Paying for the settlement

Laxton said that if the county does purchase the land and use it for water resources and preservation, officials could tap several ag preservation programs to help pay for it in installments, or receive credits from federal programs.

If the settlement is approved, any money needed from the county budget would be taken from capital projects for land acquisition, water development and an insurance reserve account, she said.

"It will have an impact (on the budget)," she acknowledged, but more so on the long term than short term.

Laxton said the county sees the expense as a positive one, though, because it would preserve open space and protecting water resources.

Taxpayers could be on the hook even more if the county were to be faced with $35 million in damages, she said.

If that happens, she said officials don't yet have an answer for where that money would come from.


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