A planned new elementary school and an endangered toad that had stymied efforts to build it will both have a place in St. Mary's County.
Officials worked out a toad-friendly land swap last week that will allow the county to go ahead with its plan to build the school on what has been state-owned land just off Indian Bridge Road in St. Mary's River State Park as early as July 2006. The school could open in January 2008.
The property exchange still needs to be approved by the county commissioners and school board as well as the state Board of Public Works, but St. Mary's officials said they expect those endorsements will be forthcoming.
Under the plan, the county will give the state Department of Natural Resources a 21-acre tract near St. Mary's River State Park and an additional 18 acres in Lexington Park. In return, the DNR will give the county the 24-acre parcel in St. Mary's River State Park where the county wants to build Indian Bridge Road Elementary.
"Geographically, it is in the location that would help relieve overcrowding in other elementary schools without major redistricting," said J. Bradley Clements, chief administrative officer for the St. Mary's County public schools. The new school will accommodate about 540 children and has been planned to ease enrollments at Greenview Knolls, Hollywood, Leonardtown, Lexington Park, Oakville and Piney Point elementary schools.
State Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), who began working with DNR officials last fall to come up with a deal, said the land swap will save the county about $2 million because it won't have to pay market prices for a new school site.
TheDNR had raised objections to the school location because the Eastern Narrowmouth Toad -- an endangered species known for its call, which sounds like a sheep -- had been seen on the property.
The land to be relinquished by the county is adjacent to the St. Mary's River Fish Management Area and has a wetland environment favorable to the endangered toad; the land held by the NR had been used for farming.
"The 21 acres is property currently owned by the county in that area and is a better habitat for the toad than the 24 acres of farmland," said county commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large).
Under the compromise, the county must follow conditions outlined by the DNR to ensure protection of the toad and the environment during construction. The DNR has requested that the county minimize impervious surfaces such as pavement, notify it of the school design and limit site clearing work to the period from October through April.
With about 450 elementary students attending class in portable buildings this year and 1,000 more projected in the next five years, moving ahead with the school was crucial, Clements said.
The need to address school crowding has become more urgent as St. Mary's County officials prepare for the base closing review process scheduled next year by the Pentagon. Local officials have been trying to alleviate any cause for concern by the Navy as it considers the future of Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
"This truly affects St. Mary's County's ability to demonstrate to the Department of Defense," McKay said, "that we are a good place to do business."