A proposal to raze now-closed Leland Junior High School, in Chevy Chase and build single-family homes on the site is the latest in a series of controversial plans submitted for the structure.
Residents of the community, who opposed three earlier proposals, still are pushing for their own plan to turn the vacant school into a multi-use community center, a proposal Montgomery County planners say is financially impractical. Leland is one of three county schools closed in June 1981 because of declining enrollment.
The proposed construction of about 25 houses on the 3.7-acre site still must be reviewed, but "it is definitely something we want to look at," said James Boston, a senior planner with the Montgomery County Office of Management and Budget, who has been assigned to oversee the recycling of vacant schools.
Although a final decision on the use of Leland cannot be made until an appeal protesting its closing is heard by the State Board of Education, residents of Chevy Chase Section Four, the town where Leland is located, fear a mood of economic austerity in county government and a recent opinion by County Attorney Paul McGuckian could result in an unwanted project or business in their neighborhood.
McGuckian, in an opinion that holds implications for communities surrounding another 28 schools scheduled to close in the next two years, said that as long as the county government owns the school sites, the vacated buildings could be used for any purpose--including private business.
If the land is sold, however, the new owners would be bound by zoning regulations. The Leland school site is in an area zoned residential, therefore no change would be necessary if the most recent proposal to build housing on the site were approved.
The housing proposal is the fifth plan submitted this year for the prime site near the Bethesda-Chevy Chase business district. The other four include the residents' proposals, jump housing for the elderly, and two commercial plans, one to convert the school into a convention and catering center and the other for a medical research organization. The two commercial groups recently told Boston they probably will drop their plans because of community opposition.
The most recent suggestion is the only one that would require demolishing the 90,000-square-foot building.
The residents' plan, outlined in a 14-page proposal, would retain the building and reopen it as a nonprofit community center. Space would be rented to day-care, sports and arts programs. A community leader said several groups--including the YWCA and the Writer's Center in Glen Echo--have indicated interest in renting space in the center.
"There's been a kind of isolationism in the community since Leland was closed and we feel that our plan would bring a focus back to the area," said Marie Gaarder, one of nine residents who have formed a nonprofit corporation to raise money and promote the community center proposal.
The Town Council has endorsed a resolution calling for the continued use of the building as a center of community activity and has hired a lawyer to represent the town's interest. Although the council gave Gaarder's group $750 to prepare its proposal, the town has not endorsed any plan yet. Two weeks ago the council sent questionnaires to all residents asking what they wanted to do with the building.
Boston called the residents' plan a "wonderful idea," but probably not financially feasible.
"It would be super if they could get the funding," said Boston, "but if they want the county taxpayers to pay for it, you only have to consider the current (county) council and know they are going to say no."
Boston said the county would have to agree to assume an outstanding debt of $500,000 on the Leland building before the State Board of Education, which maintains title to the building, would transfer ownership to the county. In addition, Boston said, needed renovation, including a new roof, would cost at least $100,000 to $200,000.
The residents' committee contends that the county should not be "penny wise and pound foolish," adding that it is not looking for a handout, but a leg up.
"The county should be able to look down the road a bit," said Cathie Titus, a former Parent Teacher Association president at Leland and current chairman of the residents' group. "Once we get this thing going we will be flooded with applications."
In its proposal, the group outlined similar projects that have been successful in other communities. Wakefield Center in Fairfax County, a diverse sports facility that supports itself through admission fees, and the Torpedo Factory, an arts center in Alexandria, are two examples the group cited as community centers where a government agency provided the seed money. Titus suggested that after the group's program got off the ground, the county could be repaid.
One of the other schools closed last June--Broome Middle School in Rockville--already is being occupied by county offices. A private school, Barrie Day School, is expected to move into Argyle Junior High in Silver Spring, the third school closed last year, if an appeal to the state board to reopen it is unsuccessful.
In addition, a special review committee set up by Gilchrist has made preliminary recommendations for 13 of the 18 schools scheduled to close this June. All of the recommended uses for the schools are noncommercial, and include day-care centers, private schools, county offices or health facilities.
No recommendations have been made for Rosemary Hills and Kensington elementary schools. The Rosemary Hills closing is being appealed to the State Board of Education and the lateness of the Kensington decision--more than two months after the bulk of the decisions--has delayed the recycling process, Boston said. If the closing is upheld, Rosemary Hills will become a community center, Boston said.
A recommendation for Congressional Elementary School was withdrawn at the request of the proposed lessee. The future use of Congressional and two other Rockville elementary schools, Lone Oak and Hungerford Park, could be affected by a recent suit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court by the City of Rockville, challenging the decision to close those schools.
The two remaining schools, Lynbrook and Radnor elementaries, are being retained by the Montgomery Board of Education. Lynbrook temporarily will house the school system's special education staff, while alternative uses are investigated. And Radnor either temporarily will house students from Bradley Elementary School if that school is renovated or will be leased to private groups, according to William Wilder, director of school facilities. The Montgomery school board's decision to close Radnor rather than Bradley is also being appealed.
The county's Office of Housing and Community Development is looking at two schools--Four Corners and Pleasant View elementaries--as possible sites for housing for the elderly.
Boston said no decision had been made for the 10 schools scheduled to closed in 1983 and 1984.
Among the recommendations made by the five-member review committee set up by Gilchrist and scheduled to be discussed at public hearings at the end of May and in June are for the following leases:
* Arcola Elementary School, to Washington Christian School.
* Ayrlawn Elementary School: Bethesda YMCA will sign the lease. Day-care will be provided, along with elderly programs supervised by Suburban Hospital.
* Brookmont Elementary School: Washington Waldorf School and day-care.
* Brookview Elementary School: Iglesia Cristiana Bi-Lingual School.
* Forest Grove Elementary School: Holy Cross Hospital would sign the lease--day-care, a hospice and elderly day-care would be provided.
* Hungerford Park Elementary School: City of Rockville or Montgomery County government offices.
* Lone Oak Elementary School: City of Rockville or Montgomery County government offices.
* Montrose Elementary School: International Center for Law Enforcement Training.
* Newport Middle School: Town and Country Day School.
* Saddlebrook Elementary School: Park Police and Housing and Opportunities Commission offices.
* Woodside Elementary School: Silver Spring Community Service Center.