Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yes, let's stress-test!

At his "Listen & Learn" event last night in Silver Spring, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr said that the decision to build a middle school on the site of Rock Creek Hills Park would be "stress-tested".

We could not think of a better way to stress-test the decision, than by using the Montgomery County Board of Eduction's eight official criteria (see below) for evaluating potential middle school sites. Let's apply them to the park, which fails almost all:

Criterion 1.  LOCATION:  FAIL
"Due to the location of Westland Middle School, at the extreme western side of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Cluster, a site for the new middle school that is centrally located or closer to the eastern side of the cluster is desirable."
The Site Selection Advisory Committee failed to respect the Board's guidance in this matter, as Rock Creek Hills Park is in the far northeast of the cluster.

Criterion 2.  SIZE:  FAIL
"The .... Board of Education standard for a middle school is 20 acres."
Rock Creek Hills Park is a little more than 13 acres, including a steep creek-side slope that drops more than 50 feet, and specimen trees that would be lost to construction.

Criterion 3.  TOPOGRAPHY:  FAIL
"The existence of mature trees and steep slopes should be considered as these factors also could increase development costs or render portions of the site unusable. ... In addition to avoidance of steep slopes, ... as previously mentioned, credit is given for avoiding land ... that is designated as public parkland."
Rock Creek Hills Park has specimen trees and a steep creek-side slope and is a public park!

Criterion 4.  ACCESS:  FAIL
"The ... site should have access to a primary subdivision road, which consists of a 70-foot wide right-of-way. ... sites that have sufficient frontage to accommodate at least three points of access are preferred. ... A separate service drive is needed for deliveries. ... Community sidewalks are preferred to enhance safe student walking access to the school."
Unlike several candidate sites eliminated by the Site Selection Advisory Committee, Rock Creek Hills Park lacks a primary subdivision road.  None of the MCPS feasibility study options include three points of access, or a separate service drive. Community sidewalks are not in place.

Criterion 5.  UTILITIES:  POOR
"A suitable site must have access to public utilities that include water, sanitary sewer, natural gas, electricity, and cable."
Utilities exist, but are inadequate to support the proposed construction, and would require major upgrades.

"Excessive noise, distracting activities, or hazardous industrial-type uses on adjacent land would not be conducive to education."
The park appears hazard-free.

"Site availability is considered..."
Documents suggest that federal Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF) and state Program Open Space funds were used to develop the park; as a result, considerable uncertainty exists regarding whether conversion of the site is permissible under state and/or federal law.

Criterion 8.  COST:  FAIL
"Cost was a consideration..."
If the site is available, which is not clear, then it would be necessary to reimburse the parks department for development costs; these are not known. More importantly, under the federal act authorizing the LWCF program, conversion of the park to non-park use would require provision of land of equivalent value in the community. Crucially, because of the small site and steep slope, construction would cost substantially more (perhaps tens of millions of dollars more) on this site than on a more appropriate site. Finally, the "cost" to the community, and to the county, of losing the much-used park would be considerable.

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