Thursday, June 21, 2007


New Cupola at Courthouse

Construction crews hoisted a shiny, new cupola atop the historic Upper Marlboro Courthouse last Thursday, marking a milestone in the effort to restore the building after a devastating four-alarm fire in November 2004.

Coakley & Williams Construction plans to celebrate the Duvall Wing accomplishment with local officials at a "topping out" ceremony at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow. The $40 million renovation project at the 125-year-old building is expected to be finished by the end of 2008.

The restoration effort began in September 2005 after the fire that County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) called a tragedy. The building had been under renovation and vacant at the time of the fire. No one was killed or seriously injured in the blaze, but the structural damage was immense.

The courthouse briefly caught fire again in late January, when sparks from a construction worker's welding tool ignited building materials on the roof. Firefighters quickly contained the blaze, which did not disrupt the renovations.

-- JUDSON BERGER, Gazette Staff Writer


Scanner to Help Find Stolen Cars

The Laurel Police Department is getting an automated license plate reader that would help officers recover stolen vehicles.

The $21,000 device uses character recognition software to interpret photos taken by its two cameras, said Kevin Frost, the city's Internet technology director. The tag number is sent to an in-car laptop computer that runs it through a national law enforcement database, which would alert police to reports of auto theft.

Laurel Police Chief David Crawford said the department will conduct random scans on parked vehicles. If the scan turns up a match in the database, undercover officers would wait for the driver to return.

Last year, 214 vehicles were reported stolen in the city, according to the police department. Police have logged 96 stolen vehicles this year through June 13.

Officers expect to begin using the scanner as soon as it arrives the first week of August.

-- STEVE EARLEY, Gazette Staff Writer


More Opposition to I-495 Ramp

Several legislators from Montgomery and Prince George's counties are backing community opposition to a proposal by the state to construct a slip ramp onto the Capital Beltway at New Hampshire Avenue.

Northbound drivers on New Hampshire do not have an access ramp to the Beltway at Exit 28. Southbound drivers, however, do. The slip ramp would connect the northbound drivers to the southbound access ramp.

Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) of Takoma Park is the latest official to come out against the proposed ramp, which would connect Elton Road to the Beltway in Montgomery County. Elton Road runs through the Hillandale community in Montgomery County and Hillandale Gardens in Prince George's.

State Highway Administration officials, who are considering the ramp, said it would ease access to the Beltway and inhibit industrial vehicles from making dangerous U-turns at the point at which New Hampshire Avenue intersects with Powder Mill Road and Oakview Drive to get onto the Beltway.

Several residents in Montgomery and Prince George's fear the ramp will increase traffic in their neighborhoods.

Motorists would use nearby Wooded Way to get onto Elton Road and the ramp, said A.J. Whitfield, a Hillandale Gardens Citizens Association board member. Whitfield spoke against the ramp at a June 11 town hall meeting with Prince George's lawmakers Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D) and Dels. Barbara A. Frush (D), Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D) and Benjamin S. Barnes (D), who also oppose the proposal.

Rosapepe said last week that it is likely to be difficult for the project to proceed now that Raskin has joined the opposition.

-- JENNIFER DONATELLI, Gazette Staff Writer


Orchestra Closes 'Superior' Year

The Northwestern High School orchestra ended the school year on a high note, earning a superior rating at the county's annual spring festival -- its first in about 30 years.

Every year, the county invites school choruses, bands and orchestras to a festival, at which they are assessed by judges based on state music standards, said Leona Lowery-Hawkins, dean of Northwestern's Jim Henson School of Arts, Media and Communications. Northwestern hosted this year's event in March.

Students are asked to play prepared pieces and then sight-read new pieces. All of Northwestern's performing ensembles achieved superior scores at the county and state levels, Lowery-Hawkins said.

The validation from the judges was particularly meaningful because the school's orchestra teacher transferred to another school three years ago, and Anthony Townes, chairman of the music department, stepped in to hold the group together. Townes, a percussionist who had taught orchestra only at the elementary-school level, even took string lessons in the evenings to be able to demonstrate techniques for his students.

The extra effort paid off.

"It felt really good because we all wanted to get a 1 [superior rating] at both county and state, so when we did, it was just satisfying," said Gabriel Andino, 16, who plays saxophone, percussion and clarinet with about six ensembles, including the Northwestern orchestra.

-- MAYA T. PRABHU, Gazette Staff Writer

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